By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. Published in The Star Online 27 September 2016

AMONG those opposing vernacular schools, you can detect one umbrella argument that is continuously used by many parties. They say that the existence of vernacular schools is a threat to national identity and a hindrance to unity. Their fear is that this student segregation will lead to a fracturing of our society.

I disagree with this view. I think they confuse the purpose of education and there is also a lot of hypo­crisy going on.

Let us firstly look at the concept of schooling. Historically, the entity known as a school has its origin in Prussia in the early 1800s.

At that time, Prussians were looking at methods to produce citizens who would loyally work and fight for causes determined by their rulers. So they devised a system where, from a very young age, their citizens were trained to live a regimented life.

It did not matter what your abilities and interests were. As long as you were of the same age, you would be grouped together and forced to learn subjects determined by the elites.

Like the military, there was heavy emphasis on leadership by head teachers and teachers, while students were mere recipients of what was taught to them. That regimentation remains as the nature of modern schools.

After two centuries of bureaucratic evolution, schools these days are not about providing holistic education to support the child’s individual growth anymore. Instead it is about producing cohorts of citizens who can be easily grouped and compartmentalised.

Every one of us who went through the modern school system has been compartmentalised into groups based on our exam results.

And that is also why it has become the norm for those in power to use the school as a tool for social engineering. From day one, since Prussian times, the purpose of a school has always been about social engineering. Yet the vast majority of people today confuse schools with education.

In reality, you can still get an education without going to what have become our traditional schools. Education can be obtained from home, or in informal groups that come together for what is today known as “home-schooling”.

More interestingly, there is also a global interest in concepts such as unschooling, Sudbury schools, and democratic schools.

Those who oppose vernacular schools usually do not argue about the quality of education received by the students. They are not driven by the desire to catalyse social mobility by ensuring everyone has access to quality education. But they are driven by their desire to produce a society moulded in a way that they approve of.

The elites have a concept of what they feel society should be like and they want to use the Prussian factory-like model of schools to produce underlings who behave according to their pre-determined mould. To legitimise their mould, they label it as unity.

Note that their desire for unity has nothing to do with education. Their focus is on schooling. And this is where the hypocrisy creeps in.

Many of the people who want to promote their mould of unity have never attended any of our government schools. They don’t even send their own kids to our schools.

They step into our schools perhaps for a few hours a year for hyped-up visits, yet they speak as if they really know. More amazingly, they speak as if they actually have faith in our school system when their actions show otherwise.

In reality, these elites campaign for something that will never affect them. When it comes to their own families, they send their children for a “better” education elsewhere.

They want to limit our choices on schools because they know that they can always pay their way out and send their own children to a school of their choice.

This is the tragedy of some of the privileged. Instead of looking for ways to make sure everyone can afford school choices like them, they want to kill choice for everyone who cannot afford to pay.

Let me pose a rhetorical question.

If unity can only be achieved by making students from different backgrounds come together in one school, then why do they just want to close vernacular schools?

To be specific, data shows that Chinese schools have higher ethnic diversity than other schools. I can think of many non-Chinese schools that are completely mono-ethnic. If we are objective, it is not the Chinese schools that need to be closed down.

This is why I say that there is a lot of hypocrisy in the debate. Worse, that hypocrisy is clouded by confusion about whether we want to educate or we just want to have factory-like schooling.

The vernacular school debate is a debate of the elite. For us common people, our sole desire is to be able to provide our kids with quality education.

It is possible to provide school choices for the commoners, such as by using school vouchers so that choice is provided but schools are still free for the students.

Of course, it will take time to move towards this choice-based system. Until we get there, I beg the elites to stop trying to kill what few choices remain for us poorer citizens of this country.


*Wan Saiful Wan Jan is Chief Executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)

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