9 October 2014
Every now and then some person or other will say that vernacular schools should be banned. Ostensibly the reason given is that they somehow breed disunity, primarily because vernacular schools generally cater to children of one ethnic group. Hence Chinese students go to Mandarin schools; Indian children go to Tamil schools and so on and so forth.
There is an assumption that this division of children based on ethnic groupings from an early age is not conducive to national unity. There are some subtleties that this argument does not take into account. For example mandarin schools need not be mono-ethnic as more and more non-Chinese parents are sending their children to such schools. I am uncertain about the ethnic composition of Tamil schools.
Secondly is whether such segregation is truly the reason for any disunity in the country? This would require a much more thorough study being conducted based on the attitudes and perceptions of graduates from vernacular and national schools. Another point that is missed out is the existence of Islamic religious schools. These schools are also generally mono-ethnic in their make-up. Are they also to be blamed for any disunity in the country?
Before we go on to other pragmatic considerations, let’s look at what the law says. The Constitution states in Article 152 that “The national language shall be the Malay language provided that no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (otherwise than for official purposes), or from teaching and learning, any other language and nothing in this Clause shall prejudice the right of the Federal Government or of any State Government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in the Federation.”
In other words the existence of vernacular schools is protected by Article 152 of the Constitution just as affirmative action for Malays and Natives of Sabah and Sarawak are allowed for under Article 153. It is ironic that those who challenge the continuation of vernacular schools are usually the very same people who would defend Article 153 to the nth degree. Why defend one aspect of the Constitution and not another I wonder?
Anyway, my own personal view is that ideally all children went to the same type of school. It would be great if those schools also had excellent classes on mother tongue education depending on its situation (Sabah schools might want classes on Kadazan for example) and if the general quality of teaching is top class. But at the end of the day, I think it is healthier if children regardless of ethnicity or class went to school together.
Why do I mention class? That is because it is not just vernacular schools and religious schools which are the options open to parents. There are also now a fast growing number of private and international schools and these are only an option to people from the wealthier classes of the community. This is also a form of segregation where wealthy children will be kept in a bubble far from the reality of the lives of the vast majority of Malaysians. This too can be unhealthy.
Which leads to my final question; why do parents send their children to the schools that they choose? What are the criteria for the choices made? I doubt that there are many parents who will say it is because they don’t want their children to have a feeling of unity with their fellow Malaysians. The answer would in all likelihood be that they send their children to schools where they thing their offspring will get the best education.
Therein lies the ultimate answer. If you want young Malaysians to go to national schools then you better make sure that those schools are staffed by competent and inclusive minded teachers; are secular in their approach (so that children of differing faiths all feel comfortable there); and ultimately that they provide an excellent education. Parents want what is best for their child. Questions of unity are not one of those considerations when choosing a school. Excellence is. Keep that in mind the next time talk of national schools versus any other type of schools crop up.