A consideration of the debate on vernacular schools, and the important roles that both national and vernacular schools have to play in Malaysia.

The debate on vernacular schools in Malaysia is often misleading, unconstructive and damaging. I say this because much discourse and opinions about vernacular schools have a dangerous tendency to suffer from oversimplification; you are either for the vernacular school, or you are for its abolition. This is little more than politicised banter — on one hand, it preaches to the choir; but on the other, it unnecessarily stirs up divisive communal frustrations. We must acknowledge that this recurring controversy is deeply-rooted in the convoluted web that is the fabric of Malaysian society — some of which our own doing, others an indirect result of British colonialism. Either way, its complexity demands greater attention and certainly, deeper analysis.

To be clear, this article will advocate no position for or against the vernacular school; rather, it aims to highlight three key issues that matter — culture, nation-building and general quality of education — and to finally assess what they mean for the vernacular school (and indeed, its counterpart: the national school) in the future of the Malaysian educational landscape.


When discussing any Malaysian affairs with ethnic undertones, we must keep in mind one key thing: as much as an idealist would like to believe otherwise, the current Malaysian society does not yet view itself as a collective; rather, we identify ourselves — both consciously and unconsciously — as distinct entities which make up a whole. As such, our perspectives on issues that affect us are often viewed through communal lenses, depending on which entity we believe we belong to and our communal upbringing. This context rings strongly for the issue of vernacular schools, which is why culture should be at the crux of any discussion regarding its condition.

In particular, the survival of the vernacular school is often strongly associated with the survival of the minorities’ culture; in this case the Chinese and Indians. Traditionalists, especially those from previous generations, are usually quick to defend the vernacular school with the idea that it represents their identity as a people. The use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction is seen to keep the young connected to their cultural roots, and the lessons culturally enriching through history, literature and ethics, all of which are believed to be exclusive to the vernacular system. As such, an attack on the vernacular school is held to be tantamount to an attack on culture.

There are two dimensions to this association.

The first one is politically and emotionally charged. Passionate defenders of the vernacular school will not hesitate to express their fears that without vernacular education, the younger generation will slowly forget their own culture and thus their identity. Coming from a national school, I can see where such fears come from: after all, when I compare myself to my peers who underwent vernacular education, they are clearly superior in their cultural awareness. The combination of passion, pride and fear creates an incredibly fragile atmosphere.It necessitates discourse that rises above the aforementioned for-and-against positioning; it calls for empathy and acknowledgement of these cultural insecurities. Put simply, taking this into account, an outright advocacy for abolition is politically unfeasible and counterproductive to the national cause, as it will exacerbate social discord.

The second dimension is more moderate and encompasses both cultural and quality concerns: some segments of the minorities associate the survival of culture with the survival of the vernacular school simply because they lack faith in the state’s ability to effectively protect (let alone execute) the education of culture through the national school system. When juxtaposed against the firmly established and time-tested machinery of the vernacular institutions, some are unconvinced that the national schools can even compete on the grounds of cultural education, let alone provide a superior option. To add further detriment, proponents of vernacular schools are quick to point out that the general quality of education in vernacular schools is simply higher, as evidenced by better results.

While traditionalists and the older generation are concerned with cultural politics, the second dimension is much more reflective of most parents today — they demand a quality, wholesome education for their children, and their children will be sent to institutions that meet that demand. The current status quo — with 90% of Chinese children and 60% of Tamil children attending vernacular schools — suggests that the vernacular school offers just that. Being a student from a national school and a firm believer in nation building, this is personally disappointing but the fact of the matter is, I have little reason to dispute the decisions of the parents.

However, the cause of national schools is all but lost. Merit must be given to national schools because they are potentially superior for nation building purposes. Nation building is a desirable goal because it lays down the appropriate social, cultural and political foundations upon which a country can effectively and efficiently utilise its resources. While the extent to which education systems can be relied upon as the state’ s instrument to shape society is a debate in its own right; what is certain, though, is that education systems are a strong reinforcing agent of values and perspectives. In the pursuit of nation building, the kind of values and perspectives we should seek to reinforce in schools should be those which celebrate diversity and recognize each ethnic community’s cultural complexities and nuances. In other words, our schools should be a microcosm of the real Malaysian society.

This idea of nationhood goes beyond sentimental patriotism; from a practical standpoint, the inability of a nation’s own citizens to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of shared destiny can lead (and in Malaysia, has led) to an outflow of human capital. In the domestic economy, lack of a “collective” view can be an impediment to fulfilling our full economic potential as we allow diverging communal interests to constantly act as a destabilising force — this is becoming increasingly relevant in Malaysia.

With these values and perspectives in mind, the national school is clearly superior. Albeit all its imperfections, the main positive of the national school, as it stands — from both a national and parental viewpoint — is that it serves as a much better platform for a child to grasp the idea of the Malaysian society; that is, the racially and culturally diverse Malaysia. If we accept that the environment is very capable of influencing the beliefs and behaviour of children, then we must accept that children who grow up in national schools are less likely to grow up in ignorance of their ethnically distinct peers. Consequently, with cross-cultural experiences, they are more likely to develop crucial skills in effectively engaging and communicating with a wider mix of people.

Based on experience of my own and my peers, this is a compelling argument which goes beyond rhetoric, especially when we look at less urbanised parts of Malaysia, where physical communal separation is relatively significant. Again, returning to the idea of schools as a reinforcing agent of values and perspectives, an arguably more “Malaysian” environment is primarily absent in vernacular schools. As a result, those who come from communities with a more monolithic cultural background (a highly common phenomenon in less developed areas) and go to vernacular schools are more likely to reinforce the biased cultural lenses through which they view the world.

Drawing upon these two fundamental elements of culture and nation building, there are important practical considerations for both national and vernacular schools. As national schools are essentially under the aegis of the state, their responsibility cannot be excluded from this discussion. The first step for Malaysian politicians and educationists is cease thinking about what to do with vernacular schools; rather, they should worry more about what to do with the national schools. Even if a one-school system, presumably under national schools, is the final goal, staunch opposition is not constructive.

Instead, a market-oriented view must be adopted; in layman’s terms, since parents dictate the terms of what they demand from the education system, the state must be responsive to these demands. If the state can rise up to the challenge, then surely, on a behavioral level, parents will be incentivised to send their children to national schools. As it stands, there are two primary demands from parents: one, they want cultural education; two, they want quality education. The state must seek to incorporate effective teaching of Mandarin and Tamil alongside the national language, and perhaps even compel every student to master all three languages from a primary level. It cannot afford to attempt to relegate cultural education to the household and assume that it will be sufficient; parents are clearly sending a different signal. In fact, instead of viewing vernacular schools with hostility, the state can be proactive and see how things are done differently in vernacular schools; surely, there are valuable lessons to be learnt by the national school system.

Source: flickr.com/xiangxi
Source: flickr.com/xiangxi

With regards to improving the general quality of education, the state needs to go beyond the idea that more spending is better; in fact, a reconsideration of the way funds are allocated and managed is required. There are two reasons for this.

The first is political; given the delicate state of affairs and the relatively low funding for vernacular schools, pumping more money into the national schools may serve only to galvanise the convictions of proponents of vernacular schools — particularly pro-vernacular parents — that the government cares little for their respective communities. What matters is not whether these claims are real, what matters is that they exist and that they are very legitimate in the minds of pro-vernacular parents, a formidable interest group in its own right. And because of that, the ignorance of these conditions — by increasing spending on national schools while starving vernacular schools of funding — will only widen the wedge between communal and national perspectives. The state’s aim of nation building that strives for a society that is able to view Malaysia as a collective whole will fall on deaf ears if the state itself will not listen to these political fears.

The second involves the systemic problems of our national schools. The state needs to deal with a multitude of things: various incentive problems within the teaching profession, the selection and training of our teachers, national schools which don’t really seem “nationalised” — the list goes on. These problems reflect much wider concerns about the implementation of our educational policies and can only be effectively elaborated in an article of its own (perhaps even that would not suffice). The truth is, many of the less traditional-minded parents would send their children to national schools — if only it would not compromise their children’s quality of education.

As for the vernacular schools, they are clearly in a better standing at the moment. Despite the little funding that they receive from the government, they continue to thrive and attract new students. This displays remarkable resilience on the part of the vernacular schools; their strengths as well as their unique educational culture are valid calls for preservation. Assuming that national schools do rise up to the occasion and eventually provide enviable standards of education, it still does not mean that vernacular schools will become an anachronism in Malaysia.

Having said that, the vernacular schools — as part of our nation’s education services — still have a responsibility in nation building as well. In the collective interest of the country, vernacular schools should detach themselves from their perceived role as the stalwarts of Chinese and Indian identity. Vernacular schools should not be on the defensive; they enjoy success and are very reputable academically — they should exploit this. To be more precise, they should thus actively pursue a wider demographic mix that is more reflective of the national population. Increasingly, more Malay parents are beginning to send their children to vernacular schools — vernacular schools should welcome this.

This strategy projects an important idea: that vernacular schools — contrary to popular belief — are not exclusive to those of a particular ethnic origin. This is important because it would represent a significant paradigm shift: no longer will vernacular schools be viewed as institutions that propagate and defend culture. Rather, they become institutions that are inclusive and offer a unique educational experience.

Ultimately, with regards to the issue of vernacular schools in Malaysia, the onus lies on the national schools (and thus the state) to prove itself as a better option to the general public. The idea of forcibly imposing one-school system under the name of nation building is out of the question, at least until the immense popularity of vernacular schools diminishes — and that is extremely unlikely. Thus, the government today has a clear ultimatum: it can either rebuild the good reputation that our national schools used to carry proudly; or, it can choose to allow that to remain as a forgotten relic of the past. For our country’s sake, I pray it does the former.

Zhi Wei is big fan of music, big ideas and enjoys a good debate every now and then. He believes in the power of the simpler things in life, and expresses them vicariously through daily doodles of a fat penguin at www.afatpenguin.tumblr.com

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Zhi Wei is big fan of music, big ideas and enjoys a good debate every now and then. He believes in the power of the simpler things in life, and expresses them vicariously through daily doodles of a fat...

12 replies on “Vernacular Education In Malaysia”

  1. That post "Vernacular Education In Malaysia" is written in very a good manner, and it is really awesome blog I've ever found while searching law coursework help on web! and i am very pleased with the overall work. Everything is well researched and maintained, Will surely recommend this blog to my friends, also thanks for this awesome post!

  2. Seriously people doesn't get it. Back in the days, before 70s the unity amongst Malaysians were the highest and they had vernacular schools too. This basically tells you vernacular schools aren't the problem.

    If the 13 May didn't happen, you can be sure the unity would still be high. But hey, that happened. So deal with the consequences I say.
    This event broke the trust between the two races. If you ever noticed, this has since gotten worse with the recent political issues.
    Just like how white Americans are complaining about African Americans. Your ancestors or old folks did something bad, now it's time for pay back.

    Even until now, extremist African Americans still hate white Americans and America had no vernacular school as well.

    Want this to stop? The only way is for the majority to give way. Sadly, the majority is full of extremists, so that'd be hard.

  3. The solution is so obvious that I'm astounded that people keep avoiding it. Racial unity? United against what? against who? Its about insecurities. its about the lack of trust. its about discrimination. it's about acceptance and acknowledging the truth.

    Leave education alone, and focus on educating instead of using it for other agendas. Haven't we done enough damage to the education system all these years for politics, in the name of unity. Now you want to do it again for the same reason? The problem lies with the people we have in government. the failure of government to carry out its responsibilities. society itself, who are so obsessed with political power. who cannot accept all of us are indeed different.

    Do you mean to tell me all those people making racial statements, those racists, were educated in vernacular schools? Those at the top levels of government were born in the 40s-60s, playing to the gallery of Malay Ultras – who were western and malay educated, locally & overseas…

  4. Let’s correct one long-propagated fallacy about vernacular school is the hindrance to national integration.

    ‘Integrating the traditional and cultural aspects of vernacular schools with the nation-building objective of national school, the students, regardless of race and religions, would come out having the best of both experiences.’

    This statement makes it as if vernacular school exit outside the nation-building objective. The writer is NOT alone, but can any one shakes some light to such thought about 'that national-building objective'? Assimilation?

    Hello, vernacular school, primary &/or secondary, unlike Mara-type of schools, does not exclude anybody, regardless of race & religions, to enroll & study. So why consistently point-planed about vernacular school exist to the exclusion of others?

    Language? Nay, there is 3 languages been taught there. Religion? Vernacular school is secular, through & through, unlike majority of the ‘national’ islamised wannabes. Syllabus? Does vernacular school not teaching what the govt educational syllabus dictated, as 98% of the vernacular students take govt exams & more?

    In fact, true to be told, vernacular school provides a much better environment for the kids from different backgrounds (race, religion, class) to incubate the cultural awareness of various entities within our society, under a care-free surroundings.

    This is one BIG factor that national school CANNOT provide, due to its rigid stipulation of rules about religious sensitivities, unmentioned ‘quota’ in any student awards/positions etc etc…

    ‘..‘what makes you think the ‘nationalize’ primary level could make the process easier?’ and I think the answer to that would be that early integration and awareness about racial differences could lead to better understanding and tolerance and prevent discord and enmity at later stages i.e., secondary and tertiary. It is not surprising to see in a national secondary school distinct group of friends divided according to the race. I am studying in the UK and I still see that there are still Malaysian students who are unable to make friends and communicate with those outside their inner circles (i.e., home students) which usually consist of other Malaysian students of the same race with the same mentality.’

    This oft-used ‘chicken’ is passed its shelf-life. Kids in primary level mix easily, even though they might be grouped within their own kind during this 6-yr period. In fact, these kids’ tendency to react with kids outside their groupings (different race/religion) depends more on the mental curiosity. This curiosity can only be discouraged by introvert nature, perception of self-safety & adult objection. The first two causes r internal driven while the third is external. All can be overcome when the kids reach certain level of mental maturity & socio-understanding.

    But in M’sia, this sparkle chance growth in mental maturity & socio-understanding is almost non-existence when these kids reach secondary level. The forces that cause this reinforcement of self-enclosed thinking r none other than the frequent ‘inequalities’ mapped out by the current educational policies.

    Just think – how do a student react when he/she realized that all the ‘mid-night oil’ effort of studying hard to ace in exam cannot get the course he/she desired, due more to the colour of the skin & quota. While the classmates of the right skin colour/connection have a wide choice of oversea course selections even though the exam result is only mediocre!

    Couple that with all the other ‘untold’ policies of racial nature & BTN-induced hate among the Malay M’sians, within the secondary school, you harden their out-look about that particular class of people. Talk about unity!

    So, no need to reinvent the wheel to combine the existing setup. Just let both systems prevail & compete, with equal govt supports, both financial & facilities providing. The ONLY objective is that ALL pupils must be taught to be proud of MALAYSIA & been MALAYSIAN, based on his/her capabilities on merit, without the troglodytic objective of ketuanan.

    The REAL question is can some people’s ‘old prejudices’ of losing their tongkat status can be truly eliminated.

  5. anomie,

    My stand on assimilation is fluid with time and condition. I reject assimilation but at the same time, I acknowledge the majority wish and reason to do so. To me, this is human nature. What I can’t accept is when some twist between assimilation and integration for the sake of so-call nation building, but at the same time frame themselves into a ‘special position’ and wish the people around them to assimilate and integrate encircle that frame. I also cannot stand the hypocritical Anglophile that keep on telling us Chinese school this and Chinese school that. The moment we suggest to scrap off English then you see they behave like crybaby. Their perceptive toward the entire ‘balance’ of a multi-racial society is amazingly juvenile.

  6. It seems to me like the idealistic way forward would be to combined both national and vernacular schools under one roof. Integrating the tradional and cultural aspects of vernacular schools with the nation-building objective of national school, the students, regardless of race and religions, would come out having the best of both experiences. I went to a national 'malay vernacular' school and I missed out on making friends with students from other races simply because there was hardly any to begin with. The little cultural awareness I have now comes from making friends with those of different races in my secondary school and university.

    Combining the two systems would certainly contribute to greater awareness among the students about the cultural differences among the major races in the country and hopefully that would encourage the students to appreciate the need for unity even more at an earlier stage.

    HY asked 'what makes you think the ‘nationalize’ primary level could make the process easier?' and I think the answer to that would be that early integration and awareness about racial differences could lead to better understanding and tolerance and prevent discord and enmity at later stages i.e., secondary and tertiary. It is not surprising to see in a national secondary school distinct group of friends divided according to the race. I am studying in the UK and I still see that there are still Malaysian students who are unable to make friends and communicate with those outside their inner circles (i.e., home students) which usually consis of other Malaysian students of the same race with the same mentality.

    Combining Vernacular and National school is definitely a good way to bridge the gap and help our students from a very early stage to get out of their comfort zone and explore cultures and experiences different fromt that of theirs and possibly improve their communication skills. Combining the two systems would certainly produce competitive players in a global playing field.

    Then again, that is idealistic me thinking. I somehow doubt the practicality of it because the governing body of our country is still somewhat fearful and scared of old prejudices.

    1. Any talk about promoting national unity via a unified national school system is truly hypocritical when you know that the Barisan Nasional government practises a divide-and-rule policy. Can a government that promotes Ketuanan Melayu honestly claims itself to be promoting national unity? Apartheid sounds more like it!!! For those who know what Islam is all about, Ketuanan Melayu is forbidden in Islam. So what is Ibrahim Ali barking about? That he is not going to hell fast enough?

  7. HY,


    '2) I suspect no one has a clear picture what shall be the mainstream culture and language for Malaysian, how far we are willing to move away from our current position in the racial context is unknown, or are we ready to do so? In short, what is our definition of nation building?'

    Definitely NOT ASSEMILATION – as championed by the ketuanan gang!

  8. One other reason is the rise of China and India as economic powers. The Chinese language are gaining importance as a language of commerce.

  9. A pain taking piece of work, but unfortunately not researching into the education field much.

    Here are few links the writer should ponder for the next piece of work.



    There are tons of info from the UNESCO that the readers also can get it from


    By the way, isn’t the national type of schools are also the vernacular schools of the Malays ?

  10. Overall ZY articulation is sensible and balanced pertaining to VS issues. His cited caused and direction allied with the contemporary thought of most present VS background generation. DJZ and the so-called Chinese political party do not essentially represent the view of Chinese community, especially the parents. Rhetoric from most is to rile up emotion of respective segment of society with aim to consolidate support, though the crux is admittedly limited of choice.

    Some points for the author to ponder:

    1) The secondary and university level is actually ‘national’, if that doesn’t help in nation building, what make you think the ‘nationalize’ primary level could make the process easier?

    2) I suspect no one has a clear picture what shall be the mainstream culture and language for Malaysian, how far we are willing to move away from our current position in the racial context is unknown, or are we ready to do so? In short, what is our definition of nation building?

    3) I take this opportunity to raise a question on comment made by one Tenji in this article related link, ”Being an Ex-British colony means Malaysia has a part Anglo cultural heritage. You strike me as one of those Chinese Malaysians who are very protective of the Chinese language even though this isn’t China.” Do you see the contradiction in his statement? Why we accept the fact that Malaysian can be Anglophile while see everything ‘Chinese’ to be related to China?

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