A fair and farsighted education system

IF we are to progress as a truly "developed" nation, we need a reformulation of our education system founded on egalitarian principles both in terms of opportunities and institutional practice. Tangible educational policy must focus on nurturing all Malaysians regardless of class or ethnicity to foster a nation of mature, critical and creative thinking citizens and that bridges the huge differential between manual and intellectual labour.

Malaysians deserve quality holistic education that encourages learning of the arts and humanities as well as scientific and technological knowledge required for research and development and vocational skills. Education must be secular and free of political and religious interference. Let academic freedom, students' self-government and campus autonomy be the new environment in our tertiary institutions.

Free tertiary education for the B40

To meet the egalitarian goal of leaving no child behind, tertiary education needs to be free for the less privileged (household incomes of RM10,000 a month and below). To have a progressive and sustainable system, those from a more privileged background (household income RM20,000 or more a month) should pay full tuition fees. Otherwise, the middle class who dominate tertiary institutions will be subsidised by the working class. Those from households between RM10,000 and RM20,000 a month could pay on a sliding scale that is means tested. This will better ensure equal opportunities for all with no racial discrimination in enrolment into tertiary educational institutions.

The principle of free primary and secondary education for all should extend to the 60 independent Chinese secondary schools because they have been maintained by the Chinese community since 1961 and their Unified Examination Certificate is now recognised by the PH government.

No politics

The bigger priority of our new education policy is ending the politicisation of education. To refer to just one event out of many in the last six decades – the decision to send unqualified administrators to Chinese schools in 1987 – led to protests which then saw the unleashing of Operation Lalang. The unfair financial allocation to SRJK schools is also reflective of the way mother tongue education has been politicised and forced the Chinese and Tamil communities to pay "double taxation" to maintain their schools. The most telling indicator of the way education has been politicised is the statistics on Chinese and Tamil schools:

At Independence, we had 1,350 Chinese primary schools, 78 Chinese secondary schools and more than 800 Tamil primary schools. Today, there are only 1,290 Chinese primary schools, 60 independent Chinese secondary schools and 550 Tamil primary schools despite the doubling of the Chinese and Tamil population. There are nearly 100,000 non-Chinese students in the Chinese primary schools. Can you imagine the numbers in the classes in these schools?

Be proud of our mother tongue schools

Malaysians have good reason to be proud of our longstanding multilingual educational institutions. We should be proud that we have mother tongue education systems that have been nurtured since pre-British colonial times. The first Chinese school in the peninsula was set up in 1819, nearly 200 years ago. The Tamil schools have also had nearly 150 years' history. It is not true that the British built different schools to keep the Malayan people apart. All mother tongue schools, including Malay schools were neglected under the British. It was the far-sighted pioneers in the respective communities those early days who built the schools to ensure their children received mother tongue education.

Thus, our ethnic communities should be congratulated for nurturing their mother tongue education despite the colonial neglect. During the pre-Independence days, there was mutual encouragement among the Malay, Chinese and Tamil education groups. Thus, the Chinese education leader Lim Lian Geok encouraged the Malay-language lobby to develop Malay-language education beyond primary level during the pre-Independence days.

Nevertheless, since Independence the Chinese and Tamil school lobbies have grown to distrust Umno's attempts to change the character of these schools while refusing to allow any further increase in numbers. The mother tongue education lobbies have doggedly defended their schools against attempts to convert them to English-medium and later into Malay-medium schools. The statistics speak for themselves and the controversies at practically every general election reflect the politics of race and assimilation. Those who do not comprehend the suspicions by the Chinese and Tamil school lobbies of Umno's agenda should read the protean saga I have written in The Chinese Schools of Malaysia.

The lesson to be learnt from the acrimonious controversies of the last 61 years is that the disingenuous attempts to assimilate mother tongue schools are bound to fail because the Chinese and Tamil communities will defend their schools tooth and nail.

Human rights provisions cannot be segregationist

The arguments against the existence of Chinese and Tamil schools are always the same, namely that they do not promote national integration. This is sheer hypocrisy when we do not hear the same strident condemnation of the racist enrolment policy at UiTM and other Mara institutions even though these institutions are paid for by all Malaysian taxpayers.

I have argued against the inconsistent arguments of the "melting pot theorists" elsewhere. As educationist Ken Robinson has advocated, "Ultimately, education has to be formed around how children learn and what they need to learn to form themselves." Unesco studies have shown that while middle class children in more privileged family environments can cope with a second language as the main medium of instruction, those from less privileged home environments fare better when the medium of instruction at pre-school and primary level is their mother tongue.

Having said that, I have greater respect for the democrats who genuinely hope for greater contact between children of different ethnic communities. Allow me to put forward a progressive vision.

Schools provided by elected local councils

The promise of elected local government in the PH manifesto is fundamental to this vision. Once we have democratically elected local councils, education can be decentralised with schools built to suit the needs of the local communities based on local survey findings rather than the prevailing top down racial politicisation of education. Thus, if a community expresses a need for a Chinese medium school in Petaling Jaya or Kajang or Kuantan or Johor Baru, the local council would build it based on that need. The same applies to the other communities, for example, in providing English medium schools for Malaysians whose mother tongue at home is English. Why not indeed!

Education precincts to promote integration

Integration can be nurtured via "education precincts" set up by the local government to include new Malay-medium, Chinese-medium, Tamil-medium, and English-medium schools. These precincts would have parks and fields, theatres, ICT centres, libraries, gymnasiums, and other excellent facilities to be shared by students from all the schools in the precinct. Thus, besides allowing for opportunities to integrate, such a design will ensure greater equality among the schools in terms of quality of schools, facilities and financial allocations. The Chinese and Tamil schools will have no reason to complain about being discriminated against when they receive proportionate government assistance. And existing schools can similarly be grouped to ensure they have access to shared facilities and opportunities in their vicinity.

Thus, not only will students from all the streams have the opportunity to mix and mingle in these precincts, they can take part in joint cultural performances, quizzes, elocution and debating competitions, societies and sports meets. This will not only promote integration but also enhance the quality and standards of all schools.

The underlying principle in creating education precincts is qualitatively different from the old government's "Vision School" concept, in that the schools in the education precinct are run AUTONOMOUSLY. The only difference is that the schools are completely catered for and funded by the government. Such an egalitarian system would offer a progressive way forward for the whole nation and would herald a new era of truly Malaysian cultural understanding both in education and society. For our system of education to be high-performing, it has to be well-focused and well-resourced, investing in professional training, appropriate technology and such common support services as in the proposed education precincts.

Once the new PH government honours its aspiration of creating a Malaysian Malaysia and to enact the provision of local council elections, it would be a short step to adopt education precincts as an integrationist blueprint for our new education policy. The mother tongue lobby in the Chinese and Tamil communities must likewise consider this proposal to have education precincts if they are serious about wanting to promote national integration. After 61 years of never ending controversies over our mother tongue schools, it is time to say: "No politics in education please, we're Malaysians!"

Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suaram. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com