I grew up knowing no colors.
In the mornings of my primary school assembly, we lined up side by side and spoke interchangeably in Malay and English—be it to gossip on that cute new girl in school, or in re-calling van Nistelrooy’s goals against Arsenal…while several others updated each other on their latest collection of Pokemon decks. Festivities were not to be missed with spicy murukus being just as seeked-after as Ketupat Rendang and plastic-wrapped Mandarin Oranges.
Against this multi-cultural backdrop, long-lasting friendships were made as we shared common life experiences in light of our childhood innocence. None of us felt any tinge of differences, except when our non-Muslim friends had to make their way to Pendidikan Moral’s classes (instead of ‘Christianity’ or ‘Buddhism’, as though non-Muslims were all non-believers).
Sadly, be it circumstantial or by choice, not every Malaysian could experience the multi-racial beauty of growing up together. While it’s not democratic for our demographics to be altered to fit the national average, situation is made worse as our education system is more likely to cause polarisation than integration. Priding ourselves for having multi-stream education, it’s shallow to connote its diversification as a yardstick of success.
The Segregation is Systemic, and the Disintegration is Real
As I started my secondary schooling, it was not by mere coincidence that more Bumiputera students are isolated from this opportunity for multi-racial exposure—thanks to a heavily-biased boarding school intake—while the vernacular students struggled to break out of their racial comfort zone from their shackle of vernacular upbringing. This is without taking into account of both state and privately-funded religious schools which are almost-exclusively Malay.
At the age of 13, my racial line was still a blurry one although the social disparity was getting more apparent. It was also then that I realised that there were Malaysians who couldn’t speak in our national language!
And it wasn’t just one or two!
In every batch of new students, almost 40 of them had to be temporarily-held in ‘re-learning’ class as they struggled to speak in any other languages than in their own mother tongue. Probably feeling left out from the linguistic barrier and the connotation of them being ‘academically-stunted’, these students began to prefer mingling from only their own.
The Fallacy of Our Multi-Stream Education System
As serious as it sounds, these are just superficial examples of the dichotomy of our national education system—one that is dubbed as ‘multi-stream’ by our politicians.
Recently this issue was sensationalised again as our vernacular education system became the scapegoat for the seemingly-frequent and unwarranted public racial spats.
Various quarters had since rose up to defend this right to vernacular education as constitutionally-protected and one which was agreed in the spirit of pre-Merdeka agreement. Several others, meanwhile, stressed the importance of living together under one roof with the references to Himpunan Maruah Melayu and the allegedly Chinese-dominant Bersih 4.0 as a symptom of disintegrating racial unity.
Say what you want, but our politicians cannot deny that our multi-stream education system is a broken one.
Selfish, Myopic and Politically-Motivated
I disagree with the notion that the vernacular schooling is to be solely blamed for the growing polarisation of our education eco-system. Numerous success stories were shared recently by The Star (an obvious, strong proponent of vernacular education) that non-Chinese students alike are enjoying the benefits of Mandarin-oriented learning environment. Some of their parents also relish the supposedly effective learning of Mathematics and the embedding of relentless hard work.
It’s funny to observe that Malay newspapers, on the other hand, pointed their fingers at non-Malay parents over their reluctance to embrace the national stream.
Here is the clashing point where both sides of the coin tend to be myopic and selfish in protecting each other’s politically-motivated interests.
Selfish in the sense that both sides seem to not recognise the weaknesses that exist within the status quo.
In the name of ‘national identity’, we struggle to acknowledge that there’s no ‘Malaysian’ or ‘national’ identity without a comprehensive inclusivity of values and clear priorities, hence why national schools are more associated as ‘Malay’ schools, while the vernacular as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Tamil’.
Having graduated from national public schools myself (in both primary and secondary), one glaring missing aspect is the lack of, or rather non-existence of Mandarin and Tamil classes. Repeating the same reasons of ‘the lack of capacity or resources,’ it is rather the unwillingness of the Education Ministry to ensure that every national school has the ability to hold Mandarin and Tamil classes that hinders any progresses.
Finding the Middle of Two Extremes
In the best-case scenario whereby Mandarin and Tamil classes are offered in national schools, the load of the learning is always of two extremes; one being a kindergarten-level learning, while the other being a centralised, exam-oriented, and definitely a tougher one for non-Native speakers—and a turn off for them to even begin to learn.
What’s needed is for these languages to be given the same priority as Malay and English as a value-added skill, rather than just for the sake of offering classes.
And yet we still wonder why our students are grappling with basic English sentences despite having been taught English for more than a decade.
The claims of pro-vernacular advocates in terms of added-value environment; such as the proper study of culture and history, preservation of values, et cetera must also be studied in order for the best of learning environment to be replicated at national school level.
We don’t have to look far for the best example but to our next-door neighbour, Singapore. The minority Malays there can still learn Malay officially at any public schools—despite English being the medium of instruction—without worrying whether to have the option of having a Malay-vernacular school instead.
More Representations Needed
On the other hand, the vernacular system has to be complemented with more representations of non-Chinese or non-Indian.
There needs to be a Key Performance Index (KPI) yardsticks on their efforts for inclusivity.
In fact, the Government here holds the stick and the carrot for its effective implementation. Allocation of grants or financial assistance, for example, can take into account that particular school’s KPI on inclusivity as a strong determinant in addition to academics and extra-curricular performances.
If vernacular schools are to be regarded on-par as the national schools, there’s no other way but to prove its mettle in asserting the ‘Malaysian’ identity within its learning environment. Similarly, SBPs, MRSMs and religious schools should also be included in this KPI for national unity for they are also known to be race-oriented rather than merit-based.
Such diversity of options would only bring more benefits than harm especially in the spirit of togetherness and spurring mutual understanding. It’s decades long since we achieved independence but the odd reality remains that we are not well-versed with each other’s mother tongue despite the similar likeness for Roti Canai, Nasi Lemak and Hainan Chicken Rice.
My personal experience of multi-culturalism can be then replicated at a larger scale for a more moderate-thinking, future Malaysia. A revamped and more inclusive education system is definitely the path to take towards a greater cause for social cohesion.
The Reform has to Start from Within
Again, the ball is in the Government’s court for them to re-affirm its stance on unity within diversity. Although the pro-vernacular advocates may argue for its own to be given equal access to funding and development, the only way forward is for our multi-stream education system to be one that is centered on national identity instead of background-oriented (race/religion).
The time is ripe for the Federal government to stop building more background-oriented schools, unless if a certain ratio of inclusivity guided by the previously-mentioned KPI can be assured. While the national school concept has to be empowered, the background-oriented ones have to prove their merit for a slice of Federal funding.
Our tendency to politicise education has not only given birth to racists and ignorants, but also to generations of Malaysians who tend to live in a silo.
Be it if one is from DAP, MCA, UMNO or even the so-called multi-racial PKR, the right tools to fix our broken multi-stream education should be those that are impartial, professional and apolitical. Our Education Ministry has to be free from the strains of divisive politics—although this is easier said than done.
National schools must therefore begin to embrace the ‘Malaysian’ national identity rather than one of ‘Malay’ or ‘Islam’. There should also be classes on other religions, languages, and cultural or historical lessons that are fitting to the localities i.e Sabah, Sarawak.
It’s about time for us to move away from the over-emphasis of the Malay-Muslim values as the face of ‘national identity’, for Malay and Islam are not but just a fraction of the Malaysian identity.