by Keeran Sivarajah. First published in The Edge 10 March 2014

When nine-year old Linda Brown attempted to enrol in a school seven blocks from her home, her request was immediately rejected. “You are the wrong race,” she was told. Instead, Linda had to travel over an hour every day to attend Monroe Elementary, a school reserved for blacks – a school much further, and considerably poorer.

Brown v. Board of Education, the ensuing lawsuit filed by Linda’s father sixty years ago, has become a landmark United States Supreme Court case, in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were fundamentally unconstitutional.

Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in his decision. And separating black children “from others of similar age and qualifications because of their race,” he continued, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone.”

Despite Brown’s overwhelming victory and its significance to the civil rights movement (even today, it is referred to in almost every serious discussion concerning US race relations) it is ironic that the lens in which the case is viewed from inherently propagates a deficit mindset. In fact, in reading the court’s judgement, there is no mention of the potential for nation building that a desegregated school system could have had.

The blacks opposed racial segregation of schools not because they saw integration as a pathway towards national unity; instead, their opposition centred on a fear that their community was losing out without access to white schools, that were typically better funded and of higher quality. Employing this deficit mindset to frame their cause actedonly to perpetuate ugly stereotypes, ones which the black community had fought so long and so hard to erase.

While historically dissimilar from the US, Malaysia struggles with its own form of racial segregation in schools today. Every year, nine out of ten Malaysian Chinese students enter Chinese-medium schools, and close to 60% of Malaysian Indian students enrol in Tamil-medium schools. It is a mockery to national unity efforts that the majority of Malaysian children will likely only interact with a child of another race at the age of 13, upon entering secondary schools. Past remedies to address this, such as the creation of Vision Schools, have been hollow – simply placing children who attend different school systems in the same compound belies the complexity of racial and school integration. Is it a wonder then that our race relations are in disarray?

At Independence, and through past education committees, Malaysia sought to advance unity through the creation of national schools, the school system of choice for all races. This antidote worked for a while, before fundamentalist groups exercised influence over education matters. Soon, national schools were perceived as Malay-Muslim schools, catering to the needs of one, instead of to the needs of many. National schools once founded by Christian missionaries, who educated a cadre of leaders for newly-independent Malaya, had their histories erased, at times literally, with the painting over of crosses on school buildings. A couple of years ago, I visited a national school that required boys and girls to use separate stairwells, and to sit segregated, by gender, in classrooms.

It is a travesty that the very institution created to foster national unity is today exacerbating the problem. From the lens of many parents, the prospect of enrolling their children in national schools is hugely unappealing. Not only is the quality of education lacklustre, the perception that national schools accentuate mono ethnic narratives aggravates the problem.

In the 1960s, newly-independent Singapore invested heavily in national schools too, expending efforts to ensure the new system was appealing to all races. However, in the 1970s, the Singaporean and Malaysian paths diverged. By 1975, no new students started Primary 1 in Tamil-medium schools in Singapore, and by 1983, parents had stopped enrolling their children in Malay-medium schools too. Enrolment in Chinese-medium schools, meanwhile, declined to less than 1% of the entire primary school cohort. Today, vernacular schools are virtually non-existent in Singapore, though, at the same time, the island republic has successfully managed to maintain a bilingual society.

While the US struggled with legal segregation in schools in the 1950s, Malaysia is faced witha community-led segregation in schools today.Without a credible alternative to vernacular schools in the form of national schoolsthat cater to all races, young Malaysians will continue to learn and live in segregated settings, “affecting their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone.”

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Keeran Sivarajah is a graduate student at Harvard University, where he is a Wendy and Philip Kistler Fellow. He is a co-founder of Teach For Malaysia and an Associate of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

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