Friday, October 30, 2009

1Malaysia dilemma

The ‘1Malaysia’ Dilemma
by K.K. Tan

The four main places for racial integration in Malaysia are:

» where we study;

» where we work;

» where we live; and

» where we entertain, play games and visit.

Of the four, education is the most important as it shapes our values and outlook from a young, tender and impressionable age and through our formative years. But our diverse national education system, which allows the freedom of choice for parents, is stuck in a dilemma. Our national schools, which should be the place for integrating our children of all racial backgrounds, are not the preferred choice for most non-Malays who are sending their children to Chinese, Tamil, private and international schools. Why?

In recent press articles, the top reasons given by most non-Malay parents for their lack of interest in sending their children to national schools are:

» not enough emphasis on Chinese and Tamil;

» lackadaisical attitude of teachers;

» Bahasa Malaysia as a medium of instruction; and

» perceived Islamisation.

As a result, national schools have become increasingly dominated by Malay pupils.

Vernacular or national-type schools existed in the country even before Independence. As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said in his response to a question in Paris earlier this month, "… it is not ideal, but something we accept. We have inherited from our forefathers a system where various communities decide on the type of education for their children … if we go against the choice, then there is bound to be social unrest …"

While nothing much can be done about vernacular schools, the government can certainly do more to woo the non-Malays to national schools. The government has stated its intention many times to make national schools more appealing to non-Malays, for example, by introducing Mandarin and Tamil classes during school hours and phasing out the limited POL classes which take place after school hours.

But many people feel that there has been too much talk and too little action. They feel that the Education Ministry is not doing enough, partly due to its huge bureaucracy (and is therefore resistant to change) and partly due to a lack of qualified teachers (to teach Mandarin and Tamil, for example).

Vision schools, when they were first proposed about 10 years ago, seemed promising. The idea was to put a national school and one or two other vernacular schools together at the same site to share common facilities in order to allow children of all races to interact. A few were subsequently set up but it remains unclear if they are a viable solution to our fragmented education system.

Besides the poor racial mix due to the different types of schools, the other important factor in promoting national unity is the role of teachers. Teachers can "make or break" a child’s outlook to life and on issues such as race. Having skilled and properly trained teachers has been a problem. And having teachers with the right attitude and outlook to promote mutual respect and understanding of all races seems to be a bigger problem.

Although there are exceptions, the teaching profession appears to be the "dumping ground" of those who cannot make it for the other professions or those who are merely using it as a ladder for other academic pursuits. It is simply not attracting the right kind of people like before.

On the medium of instruction in schools, no one doubts the importance of Bahasa Malaysia or its position as the national language. But the role of English as a "neutral" language in the past to unite the students has not been given due recognition.

An academic question often asked is: "What if the government had continued with using English as the medium of instruction?" Would our national schools provide a more conducive climate for racial harmony and attract a more racially mixed student population than what’s happening now? Many in the generations that went to the English-medium national schools can testify that there were much better race relations then and much of the goodwill still remains until today.

The government has recently decided to switch to the use of Bahasa Malaysia in national schools for science and maths against the advice of the majority of parents, educationists and even former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The concern is that children from the rural and poorer background may suffer in the long term from such a policy. Many parents of all races who have children in the urban schools are also appealing to the government to allow these schools to have the option of continuing in the use of English in science and maths.

Are we "trading off" the use of English needed to speed up our economic development to perceived political benefits (which are harder to prove) by using Bahasa Malaysia?

Sure, Bahasa Malaysia, if properly developed, nurtured and supported by all, can over the long run (say in a decade or two) be the language of science and commerce as well. But the use of English can greatly speed up (perhaps by decades) our economic development more than Bahasa Malaysia can. That is the reality we are facing as a young nation.

We can continue to develop Bahasa as a unifying force but we cannot afford to wait for it to catch up while we all lag behind. Our economic development and competitiveness should take precedence over all else because achieving economic success for all is also a vital ingredient for racial harmony.

What is the way forward for our education system?

Curbing or closing down the vernacular schools would be unjust, against past understanding and the principle of free choice and would create social unrest.

The government can do more and invest its resources more efficiently to make national schools more attractive to non-Malays. There should be less talk and more action to implement what has already been announced and agreed upon.

Perhaps what is needed is an overhaul of our education system in the spirit of 1Malaysia, which must include greater usage of English and a comprehensive programme to attract and train the right kind of people as good teachers with the right skills and knowledge and the right outlook on national unity.

This is the edited version of the speech that the writer gave at a national unity forum organised by ASLI recently. Comments:

Source: theSun, Thu, 29 Oct 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Even in two decades with bahasa malaysia as the medium of instruction in schools, unless malaysia suddenly discovers the world's biggest oil wells in its lands, malaysia will NOT develop to satisfication economically.

The main reason is this:
No one in the whole wide world is going to adopt bahasa malaysia to communicate with malaysians unless they have a treasure chest to offer.

It is only with an extremely strong economy that the nation can opt for a less common language, and even then it will only survive it, and still be at a setback, never thrive to be one of the best. France is a prime example, they have an economy strong enough to support them so that even with the disadvantage of the majority speaking French and not English, they are able to survive and still do relatively well.

Malaysia does not have this strong economy to back it up. Malaysia needs English to pull its economy up. The education system is already bad enough as it is. There are malaysians who even opt to study in Singapore and who will wake up before the crack of dawn to get to school in Singapore on time everyday, and then drag themselves all the way back after school.

Malaysians are learning nothing. Their top scholars are still of lower quality than second-tier students in neighbouring Singapore, and this is in comparison to a tiny red dot with several times a smaller talent pool than that of Malaysia's. I do not blame them; in fact I would salute them for making it that far, because they had to make that journey alone and without the support of a proper education system.

Malaysia is throwing its future away. I am not Malaysian but I think it would be a real pity to throw away the future of 27 million Malaysians.