By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. Published in Free Malaysia Today 22 September 2016
On Sept 8 there was an editorial comment in the Sin Chew Daily entitled “Chinese schools a stumbling block to national unity?”
The article discussed a survey that is currently being undertaken by the Education Ministry as part of their work to create a roadmap for unity in education. The article then went on to provide a defence of Chinese schools, arguing that it is irrational to argue that Chinese schools are a stumbling block to unity.
Reading the article, I sensed that the author took a defensive stance. It was an article designed to defend the existence of the Chinese school system in Malaysia.
It was written in response to the persistent attack suffered by Chinese schools at the hands of those who want to close them down. In this particular case, the article was responding to somewhat loaded questions that were asked in the Education Ministry’s survey.
The article reminded me of a conversation that I recently had with a friend, Tan Yew Sing, former president of the KL and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall and current president of the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce.
Tan spoke passionately about how the presence of Chinese schools in our education system is actually an asset for the country. He believes that Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world who could have a citizenry that is able to explore opportunities in growing China, developing India and the rising Islamic economies due to our own demography.
However, before we go further, I think it is important to provide some context for this discussion.
The year 1816 saw the establishment of Penang Free School, the first known English-medium “modern school” in the country. Then, in 1855, the first Malay school was established in Bayan Lepas, also in Penang.
Our schools have evolved greatly since then, and today there we have schools that fall into various categories, such as the Malay-medium national schools, vernacular national type schools, cluster schools, high performing schools, boarding schools, trust schools and more. Of course, we also have the private national and private international schools.
The different types of schools can sometimes be rather confusing. Their existence is a result of the evolution of our education system and policies.
The 1950 Barnes Report called for the abolition of vernacular schools, which indicated that vernacular schools had existed well before Malaysia was even created.
The 1951 Fenn-Wu Report refuted Barnes, and urged for the preservation of the different types of schools. The 1952 Education Ordinance implemented many of the recommendations of the Barnes Report but the 1956 Razak Report created a compromise between the Barnes and Fenn-Wu reports.
Then came the 1960 Rahman Talib report which led to the introduction of the 1961 Education Act. The National Education Philosophy was introduced in 1988. The Education Act 1996 to some extent protected school choice.
The Education Development Master Plan was published in 2006 but it failed to make a bang, and it was only meant to be effective until 2010 anyway. And recently we had the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013–2025 which is the policy that is being implemented today.
The reality is, our education system has always been subject to the prevailing political sentiment of the day. Every time a new policy is developed, questions will be asked about Chinese schools. Even after the policy is finalised and announced, the issue of Chinese schools will continue to be debated.
Every time the issue is raised, there will be groups who stand up to defend Chinese schools. But I personally feel that all these groups keep making the same mistake.
The mistake is that they take a defensively narrow attitude to only defend the existing Chinese schools and nothing else. This is a mistake because it makes them sound parochial and selfish, not willing to put the greater good of the country above their own vested interest.
I would like to suggest that if the activists really want to win the debate, they need to change their strategy.
These activists must not only defend Chinese schools for the benefit of the Chinese culture. Instead, they must turn it into a national debate, in which their talking points should be about providing superior quality education in the form that is demanded and chosen by the parents, regardless of race and religion.
They need to make a moral argument that all parents, regardless of race and religion, have the right and the responsibility to choose the best type of education for their children.
Thus, the existence of Chinese schools is to provide the type of education that is demanded and chosen by parents. Parents want to send their children to Chinese schools because they feel the education quality there is higher.
Why is the government not happy when the children are getting a good education? And how is it moral for the government to deny people from making choices about their own children?
In fact, why has the government not asked anything about Islamic schools? The Islamic schools are 100 per cent mono-religion, compared with Chinese schools that have a higher percentage of multi-religious students.
If national unity is a real concern, then surely we should worry about the schools that are exclusively mono-ethnic and mono-religious.
In fact, when parents send their children to Chinese schools, they are merely exercising their right to choose.
Choice is usually expensive. Most of the time, only the rich can choose because they have money to send their children to private schools and these schools usually use English as the medium of instruction, not Malay.
Do we really want to tell the poor that because they have no money, they don’t deserve to have a choice?
In short, those who want to campaign for Chinese schools cannot do so in a defensive and narrow way. They need to change the narrative so that their arguments are more wide and more overarching.
They should not campaign just for Chinese schools but they should campaign for the right of every parent, regardless of race and religion, to choose the type of education that they want for their own children.
The currently narrow campaign should be made wider and more inclusive so that the campaign is about all Malaysians and not just the Chinese. Parents who want their children to be educated in Tamil schools, English schools, Arabic schools, and so on, all have the same interest, that is to provide the best quality education for their children.
All these stakeholders should be brought together to campaign as one. Only then will the campaign become stronger and more widely received. And perhaps one day people will realise that we actually need more, not less, Chinese schools because that is what the rakyat wants.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the CEO of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)