IN this second of a four-part series on education, The Nut Graph attempts to examine the problems that have become entrenched in the national school system. While public schools were reliable and multi-racial centres of education for Malaysian children not too long ago, today, parents who can afford it are sending their children to private schools. Those who can’t, opt for Chinese vernacular schools. There also seems to be a growing trend towards home schooling.
Do these trends indicate that the public school system is failing us? How did it come to this? And what needs to be done to stem the decline? Deborah Loh and Koh Lay Chin attempt to answer these questions.
ANN Subramaniam is already preparing her three-year-old daughter to join her seven-year-old daughter in a Chinese-language school. The younger daughter is getting Mandarin lessons. Her sister can already sing and speak in Mandarin.
“Initially, I had worries about her (my seven-year-old) fitting in but I think she’s going to be okay,” Ann says, recounting how her daughter picked up Mandarin after only a month. Ann is not the only non-Chinese Malaysian parent sending her children to Chinese vernacular schools.
Indeed, though the statistics may be scarce, it would seem that there is an annual increase in the number of non-Chinese Malaysians who are being enrolled in these vernacular schools. But why are parents opting for Chinese vernacular schools and not national schools?
Quality, quality, quality
The parents interviewed by The Nut Graph say they are not impressed by the frequent policy changes in the country’s education system. For example, they cite the change of the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English back to Bahasa Malaysia.
Ultimately however, the primary issue the parents have is the quality of education in national schools. Most swear by the high standards upheld by the Chinese-language schools.
“The quality of teachers is at an all-time low at the national schools,” Ann says.
Parent Norhafeizah Hassan believes that increasingly, more non-Chinese Malaysian parents will find Chinese vernacular schools appealing for their children’s education.
Her eldest son is in a national school but her eight-year-old daughter is in a Chinese vernacular school. Norhafeizah intends to send her other two younger children to the same Chinese school.
Students from a Chinese school celebrating excellent exam results
(public domain | Wiki Commons)
She notes that Chinese schools have a different culture and teaching style. “The teachers there run studies like a business and you can depend on that.”
Principal for SJK(C) Yuk Chai, Goh Cheng Leong, agrees. He says parents are happy with the teaching environment in Chinese vernacular schools, noting that these schools have a reputation of performing well.
“The thing is, not only non-Chinese Malaysians [come]. I know of Chinese schools that are attracting Korean, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian and even French children,” he says in an interview.
He adds that the increase in the enrolment of non-Chinese Malaysian students can also be attributed to parents realising what an advantage learning Mandarin is for their children.
Norhafeizah isn’t the only Malay Malaysian parent who has opted to send her children to a Chinese vernacular school. Mustapha Mahidin’s daughter is now in Kuen Cheng Kindergarten, and he wants her to continue her education there.
Like Ann, Mustapha says he had serious concerns about the sekolah kebangsaan he went to as a child. “The thing is, my wife and I are disgusted with our national schools now,” Mustapha says in an interview.
“As parents, we totally reject the Islamisation of national schools. Bear in mind, we do not even consider ourselves liberal Muslims — we are serious, practising Muslims. But I believe in a secular Malaysia.”
But against this litany of legitimate complaints against national schools, are there actually more non-Chinese Malaysian parents abandoning national schools for Chinese schools?
That’s hard to tell because such information is not being released. Indeed, according to Chinese educationist Dr Kua Kia Soong, it was during the 1990s that the government stopped publicising the racial breakdown in relation to Chinese school enrolments.
A search for data on the number of non-Chinese Malaysian pupils in Chinese vernacular schools for this feature proved futile. The Chinese vernacular school principals, who spoke to The Nut Graph, say the government does not supply them with such information. At the same time, they are not allowed to release figures of their own student population’s racial breakdowns.
SJK(C) Salak South principal Lim Choy Kim could only offer that there was an annual increase of between 5% and 10% non-Chinese Malaysian pupils in his school. “These statistics are ‘sensitive’,” he says. This view was echoed by other principals, who say such figures, even from their own schools, are confidential. However, none of them were able to satisfactorily explain why the information should be deemed “sensitive”.
SJK(C) Yuk Chai principle, Goh, agrees that almost all Chinese vernacular schools are registering a 5% to 10 % hike in the enrolment of non-Chinese Malaysian students but he, too is unable to provide more details.
According to Kua, who wrote The Chinese Schools of Malaysia, there were already close to 70,000 non-Chinese Malaysian pupils in Chinese-medium primary schools in 1998, with the numbers rising.
In a phone interview, he suggests that the only way to find the exact number of non-Chinese Malaysian students in these schools now would be to ask a Member of Parliament to bring up the question in the Dewan Rakyat.
“I do not think these figures are sensitive at all. What is sensitive to the government are the financial allocations [to these schools], perhaps. [The increased interest in Chinese-medium schools] is more of an embarrassment to the government because it aims to attract all races to the national schools but more and more Malay and Indian [Malaysians] are going to Chinese schools,” he says.
Even Chinese Malaysians who were educated in national schools now have their eye on Chinese vernacular schools for their children, despite still having some years to go before having to decide.
Michelle Teh, who went to a national school, said her child is only three but she intends to send all her children to a Chinese vernacular school in the future. “My husband and I have basically made up our minds — no national schools. The system is going backwards. I wish we could afford private schools but we cannot, so my only option in this country is Chinese schools,” she says.
See also: Going private
Tomorrow: The home-schooling option