By Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser

Ever since the replacement of the English language with Bahasa Malaysia as the main medium of instruction in national schools since the National Language Act 1967, we have seen the never-ending flip flopping of language medium policy. This has included the teaching of Maths and Science in English and now, we are told that the latest independent survey shows that many Johoreans and even their Sultan favour the return of English-medium schools. At the same time, we see the announcement of new token Chinese and Tamil schools being built as vote catchers for the coming general election.

Despite the persistent infatuation with English-medium schools especially by the Malaysian middle class, we cannot ignore the mother tongue lobby made up of Malay, Chinese and Tamil schools which have existed in our country since colonial times. There will always be Malaysians who speak their mother tongue in their homes who prefer to have their children educated first in their mother tongue. With the encouragement of tri-lingualism, there is also a growing trend of non-Chinese parents sending their children (100,000 at the last count) to Chinese-medium schools.

So let’s face it: As long as there is no new consensus based on a “happy medium” that all communities can accept in a new education policy, our country will continue to ramble along like a tumbleweed that is carried whichever way the political wind blows. Admit it: A tumbleweed gathers no moss that is needed to build our Brave New Malaysia.

What We Need Is A Great Big Melting Pot?

The lesson to be learnt from the acrimonious controversies of the last 55 years is that any attempt to assimilate these mother tongue schools is bound to fail because the Chinese and Tamil communities will defend their schools tooth and nail.  Believe me; please spare the nation the biggest crisis we will ever experience and send our nation reeling backwards if the government tries to take away mother tongue schools from the Chinese and Indian communities. Anyway, the government has time and again pledged to preserve our mother tongue schools even if, up to now, they have not assisted their normal expansion.

The arguments against the existence of Chinese and Tamil schools are always the same, namely that they do not promote national integration.  This is sheer hypocrisy when we do not hear the same strident condemnation of the ‘Bumis Only’ policy at UiTM and other MARA institutions even though these education institutions are paid for by all Malaysian tax payers!

So when we consider there are 100,000 non-Chinese in Chinese-medium schools and there are 100 per cent ‘Bumiputeras’ at UiTM, which is the “great big melting pot” that the “national integrationists” talk about?

Be Proud of our Mother Tongue Education System

So as to ensure an education system that is respectful, enriching and inclusive of all the different stakeholders in this important issue, policy makers need to stop flip flopping and instead focus on a robust blueprint for the wellbeing of our nation. Such a blueprint based on the “happy medium” by respecting the mother tongue of all Malaysians offers a way forward for our nation.

First, as Malaysians we can be proud that we have mother tongue education systems in our country that have been nurtured since pre-British colonial times. The first Chinese school in the peninsula was established in 1819, nearly 200 years ago. The Tamil schools have also had nearly 150 years’ history. It is not true that the British colonial power built different schools to keep the Malayan people apart. All mother tongue schools, including Malay schools were neglected during British colonialism. It was the far-sighted pioneers in the respective communities during those early days who built the schools in order to ensure their children received their respective mother tongue education.

Thus, our various ethnic communities should be congratulated for nurturing their mother tongue education all these years despite colonial neglect. During the pre-Independence days, there was mutual encouragement among the Malay, Chinese and Tamil education groups. Thus, the Chinese education leader Lim Lian Geok encouraged the Malay-language lobby to develop Malay-language education beyond primary level during the pre-Independence days. At Independence, we already had 1350 Chinese primary schools, 78 Chinese secondary schools and more than 800 Tamil primary schools in the national education system. The ‘Government English Schools’ were of course the crème de la crème and the recognized ‘Establishment’ schools.

Today, there are only around 1300 Chinese primary schools, 60 Independent Chinese secondary schools and 550 Tamil primary schools even though our population has doubled since Independence. Added to that, we now have some 100,000 non-Chinese students in the Chinese schools at both primary and secondary levels and you can imagine the over-crowding in the Chinese schools. The mother tongue education lobbies have doggedly defended their schools against attempts to convert them first into English-medium in the sixties and later into Malay-medium schools.

Malaysians whose mother tongue is English

There are of course Malaysians whose mother tongue at home is English. We know many Malaysians – Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians – whose mother tongue is the English language. They speak English in the house and to all intents and purposes, they consider English to be their mother tongue.

I do not see any problem with providing them with English-medium schools if they say that they want English-medium schools because it is their mother tongue. Why indeed can’t parents in Petaling Jaya or Penang or Malacca or Johor Baru have English-medium schools for their children if English is their mother tongue and that is what they want?

Providing English-medium education would be the simplest thing for our Education Ministry to do since we have had so many years’ experience since colonial times and English is such an international language with models of excellence galore.

Spare us the hypocritical excuses against this proposal when we see the ever growing numbers of private International schools using English medium to which our local elites are sending their kids. Let us not see double standards when we know the MARA institutions use the English language as their teaching medium.

Decentralise education management

Third tier government is crucial to this reform. Once we have got a democratically elected local council, we can decentralize education – schools would then be built according to the needs of the communities. If a community requires a Chinese school in Kajang or Kuantan, the local council will build them based on that need. If another community asks for an English-medium school in Petaling Jaya or Johor Baru, the council allocates a budget for these too. The same goes for the other communities in other councils throughout the country which ask for Malay or Tamil schools. Thus, education will no longer be politicized and made into a racial issue.

Shared state-of-the-art facilities to promote integration

To encourage national integration, education precincts can be earmarked for new Malay-medium, Chinese-medium, Tamil-medium and English-medium schools. These precincts would have parks and sport fields, theatres, ICT centres, libraries, gymnasiums, and other excellent facilities which are to be shared by students from all the schools in the precinct.

Thus, besides allowing for opportunities to integrate, it will ensure greater equality among the schools in terms of quality of schools, facilities and financial allocations. The Chinese and Tamil schools will have no reason to complain of being discriminated against when they begin to receive proportionate government assistance. Efforts can also be made to ensure that existing schools have similar shared facilities and opportunities.

Thus, not only will students from all the various streams have the opportunity to mix and mingle, they can take part in joint cultural performances, quiz, elocution and debating competitions, societies and sports meets. This will not only promote integration but also enhance quality and standards of all schools.

Totally different Concept from Vision Schools

This democratic concept is qualitatively different from the government’s ‘Vision School’ concept because the various schools in the Education Precinct are run in the way they have traditionally been run, ie. autonomously. They may share facilities with the other schools in the precinct but they still maintain their autonomy with their respective boards of governors. The only difference is that the schools are completely catered for by the government, including financial allocation. This goes for the secondary schools as well and all secondary school students can enjoy the same free education.

I sincerely believe this “Mother Tongue Premise” is the “happy medium” and best compromise for the whole nation and we should see the beginning of a new era of cultural understanding in Malaysian education and society and provide a model for the rest of the world…