A RECURRING accusation by Malay politicians which has successfully distracted the Malay public from focusing on the more important problems of Malay education is that vernacular schools are the main source of national disunity and lack of integration.
The latest – but not last – attack against these schools – treated by policymakers as stepchildren of the national educational system – now comes from Muslimat PAS, the women’s wing of the party. At the party’s 65th muktamar, the vice-chief, Salamiah Md Nor called for an end to vernacular schools. “Dewan Muslimat has one hope – we are unwilling for Mandarin to become a second language. We want the second language to be that of the Quran and Sunnah which have been neglected for generations, causing some Muslims to become ignorant about the Quran.”
While vernacular school bashing has been par for the course for Malay aspiring political leaders, it should be pointed out that sekolah kebangsaan (SK) have also come for their share of criticism as breeding grounds of racial intolerance.
Controversies involving the mistreatment of minority community primary students by school authorities have received publicity. They have reinforced opinion among non-Malay parents that the SK schools are subjected to a Malay and Islamic-centric agenda which runs counter to the integrated environments of these schools as depicted by its supporters.
What is the situation on the ground and the reality which policymakers and politicians have to deal with?
Here are some facts and figures on schooling trends in the country:
» Of 2.69 million students enrolled in primary schools, 98% are in the public system and 2% in private schools. 77% of public schooled students are enrolled in SKs with Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction; 20% in SRJKCs with Chinese as the medium and 3% in SRJKTs with Tamil as the medium. Government-aided religious and special schools account for less than 1% of enrolment.
» Ethnic stratification in schools has increased. The proportion of Chinese students enrolled in SRJKCs has gone up from 92% in 2000 to 96% in 2011. Indian students enrolled in SRJKTs has also gone up from 47% to 56% during the same period. In SKs, 97% of students are bumiputra.
» In recent years, SRJKCs have become more multiracial in their student enrolment while SKs have become less multiracial. An estimated 17% of SRJKC students are non-Chinese, mainly bumiputra, and this proportion has been steadily increasing.
» UPSR achievement gap between SK and SRJKC is insignificant. There is a small achievement gap of about four percentage points between SRJKT and the other two streams.
» SRJK, although they teach in what has been referred to as the mother tongue language, have the same curriculum content as the SKs.
» Despite enrolment in different schools, there is widespread proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia among students of all races with 75% of students achieving a minimum credit in the 2010 SPM examination. If Bahasa Malaysia language proficiency is seen as an important tool of integration, there is little or no adverse impact of vernacular education schooling.
Why SRJKs critics are wrong
Clearly, a racial or emotive approach to the issue that is ignorant of parental and pedagogical concerns and the constitutional provision on mother tongue language of instruction is wrong.
At the same time the assumption that vernacular education undermines national unity or integration needs to be put to bed once and for all.
First, national unity is a nebulous concept meaning different things to different people.
Second, there is no empirical evidence that vernacular schools undermine national unity or integration, even if an acceptable definition can be agreed to. Neither is there evidence that Malay medium schools play a role in national unity in any way superior to vernacular schools.
Third, what evidence there is shows that interethnic interaction in integrated schools may in fact result in disunity and mistrust rather than help bring about unity and integration. A pioneering study conducted in 1968-69 in 34 secondary schools covering more than 7,000 student respondents found, unsurprisingly, that race-based affirmative action was responsible for interethnic mistrust in ethnically heterogeneous schools where competition for educational mobility was most pronounced (see Bock, J. C. (1970). Education and nation-building in Malaysia: A study of institutional effect in thirty-four secondary schools. Doctoral dissertation, School of Education, Stanford University).
Finally, it is important to note that research conducted by Unesco and other educational bodies shows that students learn best when taught initially in their mother tongue in preparation for a bilingual or multilingual education.
It has also been noted by almost all quarters that the diversity of cultures and peoples that make up our population is fundamental to our Malaysian identity and a source of competitive advantage in today’s globalised world.
Why SRJKs will survive well
What the anti-vernacular lobby does not comprehend, many ordinary folk are well aware of. And they are exercising their freedom of choice on the different streams of primary education. This was made clear to me during a visit to Malacca.
While at a pasar malam to buy fried chicken from a stall, the young Malay trader and his wife were friendly and asked whether I was from the area. I, in turn, asked about his young son who was helping out. He said he had four children, all of them enrolled in SRJKC and tadika Cina. There was no expression of concern of segregation, lack of national unity and dominance by non-Malays or fear of losing the Malay/Islamic identity. The reasons he gave for enrolling them in the vernacular stream were sensible and logical – higher standards and the importance of Mandarin for career advancement.
The Ministry of Education should undertake a survey to find out if the products of SRJK schools – despite this stream receiving less financial and staffing support from Putrajaya – may be having the last laugh on those schooled in SKs. But this will never happen as the results may be too politically explosive.
How many more children proficient in Bahasa Malaysia and religious studies but lacking basic maths and science and linguistic skills can be absorbed by the civil service and the private sector?
Solution to the national unity riddle
At the end of the day, if policymakers are really concerned about inter-racial interaction among the young (and teaching staff!), the cost efficient and non-disruptive solution that can ensure parental choice and constitutional legitimacy is to have the various language (and religious!) schools share a common school building and to have mixed classes for sports, arts, music, living skills and non-core subjects. This solution is not rocket science; just common sense.
This is the fourth in a continuing series on the state of Malay dominance. Comments: email@example.com