THE call to close down vernacular schools as a way to foster national unity has gained traction again. This divisive issue has been a subject of recurring debates, and there are those who are sincere in believing that single-stream system could really foster national unity.
Is there empirical evidence to support such a position?
The assumption is that our education system has encouraged ethnic segregation and most students are only exposed to their own ethnic members and most of us don’t have close friends from other ethnic groups. Official figures confirm that most of our primary school pupils study in a more or less ethnically homogenous environment.
But this is not so in secondary schools. Government statistics report that in 2011 around 88% of secondary students study in national secondary schools whereas Chinese independent schools enrol about 3% of the students and government-aided religious schools, 4%. The majority of secondary students have studied in the national schools. Many would have had the chance to study with classmates from other ethnic groups. Is it not more sensible to ask why five years of schooling in a single-stream secondary education does not foster national unity rather than always focusing on primary education?
Single-stream education does not render all secondary schools ethnically heterogenous as there are other factors affecting student composition such as the demographic distribution and location of the schools. The same situation would apply even if we have a single-stream primary schooling system.
Is there empirical evidence to confirm that interethnic interaction would improve interethnic relations?
The theory commonly cited in support of this hypothesis is the contact theory propounded by Gordon Allport in mid-1950s.
He proposed that contact could reduce intergroup prejudice if conditions of interaction are fulfilled. More than 50 years after, findings could only confirm that positive attitude towards an outgroup is frequently found to be associated with the extent of interaction or friendship link with members of the outgroup. Nonetheless, the findings are inconclusive as to whether it is the positive attitude which led to greater intergroup interaction or it is the interaction that led to a reduction of prejudice.
Though the statistical relationship between contact and prejudice is indisputable, it is not a very strong one. This means that other social factors may explain better interethnic prejudice or antipathy than the extent of interethnic interaction.
In public discourse, people often point to the pattern of interaction in universities as indicating “ethnic polarisation”. This is a superficial and speculative way of interpreting the pattern of interaction as necessarily indicating a hostile or negative interethnic perception. Some commentators blame it on the lack of experience in interethnic interaction of these youth but some surveys found that youth respondents did not indicate any great unease in relating to someone outside their ethnic groups.
A review of studies on the extent of interethnic interaction in Malaysia, especially in universities, reveals that interethnic interaction has always been limited as far back as the 1960s. This includes youths who were mainly educated in English medium schools, as indicated by a survey in the University of Malaya in 1966/7.
Another survey involving more than 7,000 secondary students between 1968 and 1969 found that interethnic mistrust was the highest among secondary students in ethnically heterogeneous, prestigious English-medium schools and not in ethnically homogeneous Chinese conforming schools (which evidently had a lower level of interethnic interaction).
The scholar found that this was due to a heightened awareness and sense of competition generated by the racial preferential policy implemented by the government and magnified by the frequent interethnic exposure in the former case. In other words, even if these students from English schools might feel at ease with interethnic interaction due to frequent contact, their anxiety over future social mobility prospects appears to have overshadowed any possible reduction of prejudices against their ethnic outgroup.
In Singapore, even though its government has enforced ethnic integration in public housing and schools, a survey of 4,400 primary pupils in 2003 found “minimal interethnic mixing” during recess. Preference for friends of the same ethnic origins became more pronounced among primary six pupils when compared with primary three pupils. This pattern of ethnic re-segregation in integrated schools is also observed in several other studies elsewhere in the world.
It is simplistic to think that a single-stream education would be able to resolve ethnic division and conflicts. This position is not grounded on empirical evidence. The phenomenon of ethnic relations is multidimensional and interethnic interaction is only one aspect of a larger complex societal dynamics.
This is not to deny the benefits of a greater extent of interethnic interaction, which may inculcate a greater understanding of other ethnic groups and intercultural competency. But politicians who are rabble-rousers are so not because they have insufficient experience of interethnic interaction. By limiting our analysis of ethnic division to interpersonal level, we miss other crucial social dimensions which shape interethnic relations in powerful ways.
Associate Professor Dr Helen Ting Mu Hung is with the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.