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Chinese medium schools to the rescue

alphabet bricks, letters used to spell out 'school'

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.

Some Muslim parents reject the Islamisation of national schools (© SA-Photo | Flickr)

“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?

No data

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. favicon

See also: Going private

Tomorrow: The home-schooling option

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20 Responses to “Chinese medium schools to the rescue”

  1. faith04 says:

    Mine is an English-speaking family,and Mandarin is our second language. My son couldn’t get a reasonably paid job in Kuala Lumpur, but a Malaysian-owned factory in Vietnam offer him a good job there due to his speaking and reading ability in both Mandarin and English.

    There are many Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, America and European investment companies, so employment opportunities and benefits are good for those who can command both languages. My son completed six years education (academically not outstanding, but an average student) in a vernacular Chinese school, then he went SKM, and later to a private institute. That’s enough for him to deal with Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong and European clients.

  2. thokiat says:

    Anak tiri biasanya terpaksa berdikari dan mengharungi kehidupan dengan daya saingan tersendiri, lainlah dengan anak yang serba tidak kekurangan.

  3. matdene says:

    Quoting: “The teachers there run studies like a business and you can depend on that.” Are the successes of Chinese vernacular schools come from the failings of the national education system, i.e. more emphasis in memorising than to actually understand and have analytical thinking? If it is so, then enrolling our children into Chinese vernacular schools may not be a good thing either.

    • Bread says:

      Good memory is also part and parcel of good IQ… good memory can learned, so Chinese schools are a good thing.

  4. danny leebob says:

    The phenomenon of non-Chinese [Malaysians] studying in Chinese primary schools is not new in Sarawak. The Ibans and the other indigenous people of Sarawak have already realised long time ago the benefit of private schools. There is one Chinese primary school near my house which has almost 50% non-Chinese [Malaysian students]. In some rural areas where the Chinese Malaysian population has been declining, the percentage of non-Chinese [Malaysians] could be as high as 90% because there are no alternatives.

    The government should wake up, and should have woken up long ago. Our national education system is crap and people are voting with their feet. People are not stupid, they want schools to provide good, useful and quality education, not propaganda.

    In fact, Chinese [Malaysians] are moving one step further. I say “Chinese” because I know many Chinese [Malaysian] families are moving towards home schooling. This may be because [more] Chinese [Malaysians] are [in urban areas] and have access to technology such as internet and teaching materials.

    Our national education system has already failed us.

  5. kahseng says:

    Just a tip to non-Chinese speaking parents who want to send their children to Chinese medium schools. It will help to give your children a leg up with at least one year of kindergarten with Chinese language teaching. Primary school learning and exams are essentially a game of language and logic mastery (the subject matter follows naturally). The better their language facilities (in any language), the better they can adapt and learn happily. You need to give them extra language support, perhaps through outside tuition (but then most students get tuition for most subjects anyway).

    Note that some Chinese vernacular school teachers can be unnecessarily harsh in terms of discipline, which I blame on overcrowding, under-funded infrastructure, stressed teachers, and tradition. But most problems can be resolved through communicating with the teachers.

    I think Chinese vernacular schools excel firstly because of the dedicated teachers, who are so poorly supported by the ministerial authorities that they have to be really dedicated and idealistic to begin with to be in their positions. The second advantage is the long-term strategic view of the (sometimes egoistic) board of directors, whose track record of active fund-raising (because of government underfunding) has forged a mentality of the durian orchard owner, who cultivate trees for long-term and for the next generation.

    Few understand the powerful personal motivation of these directors, who are normally older community leaders and business [people]. First, they often see the successful running of a school as their ultimate self-actualisation, after having made it financially – often proudly without government help. Second, at a deep emotional level, building schools is often the ultimate expression of filial respect for their late parents’ wishes.

    A practical question is: how are national schools – havng been emasculated (not trying to be sexist) by the government – to build an oversight/governing structure of comparable strategic horizon, dedication, deep motivation, and a lack of expectation for personal financial payback?

  6. Apologetic Parent says:

    All my four children went through international school and they did well in IGCSE and IB Diploma. However, they now regret being unable to converse well in Mandarin.
    As a parent, I apologise to them for having failed to make the right choice of school for them.

  7. Neptunian says:

    Perhaps Koh should have just gotten permission to walk through the classes during a school day and make a visual estimate – its not that hard. At the very least, it will give us a ball park figure of the Chinese [Malaysians] and non-Chinese (all assumed to be Malaysians) makeup in Chinese [medium] schools.

  8. zark says:

    “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.”

    The real story is that the government gave in to the Chinese political lobby when it decided to do away with the PPSMI. The Chinese-based parties, whether from Barisan or Pakatan, were united in their stand to abolish PPSMI mainly because the exam results of students [from] the Chinese vernacular schools were badly affected by it.

    The Chinese [Malaysians] prefer to send their children to SRJKC not because it has a better system than national schools. It is [also not] because parents want their children to learn Mandarin, as many national schools also teach Mandarin as a subject.

    The real reason why Chinese [Malaysians] shun national schools is because they don’t like the so-called Islamisation of national schools.

    As for the Malay [Malaysians], “Islamisation” of schools is most acceptable and they want more of it. It is a fact that most Malay [Malaysian] students spend an additional two to three hours in sekolah agama after their normal schooling hours.

    So mana ada 1Malaysia?

    This thing will need at least a generation to fix, and that [only] if the fixing begins today. The first item on the fix list must be to abolish all vernacular schools! Absorb them into national schools if need be. Malaysia is the only country in the world with [a] silly education system and the powers-that-be must put a stop to this once and for all…

    • Simon says:

      You said it yourself, Islamisation is the main deterrent, why didn’t you propose to abolish the process of Islamisation as number 1 in the list instead?

      Find out why Chinese send their kids to vernacular school in the first place. Abolishing [the schools] won’t solve the problem.

  9. kahseng says:


    Don’t blame the vernacular school lobbyists for the PPSMI failure. It is the government’s own poor planning, authoritarian, confused, and impractical approach that failed you and us all.

    Vernacular school supporters are on your side: They would support the re-introduction of English-medium schools as a third alternative for parents, plus more English-language lessons in vernacular schools.

    The vernacular supporters have good reasons (based on PPSMI’s poor implementation, confused theoretical underpinning, and a history of ministerial betrayals) to suspect it is the ultra nationalist’s intermediate step to abolish the vernacular governing structure. Once the teaching medium becomes English, it can be easily re-converted to Malay (Sorry, can’t go back to Chinese) — in anticipation of a Malay-educationist backlash. It won’t be six years’ time for our flip-flop-happy politicians.

    Once re-converted to the Bahasa Malaysia medium, vernacular schools will need ministry-obedient and partisan administrators (already happening in our universities), the board of directors will become redundant and can be abolished (as has occurred to the Catholic schools). Then the ministry and Little Napoleons would gain full control of canteen, bookstore, and other school revenue generators, plus substantial capital expenditure (now flowing freely from tax money), which means tremendous opportunities for corruption. Never mind the lost of independent governance, partisan administrators, and that corrupted Little Napoleons will bring down the quality of teaching at vernacular schools, and by competition, the whole nation.

    You would end up with no PPSMI anyway. Don’t you see that even Malay Malaysians are opposed to the poor implementation, because rural children are suffering, their families, teachers, and young minds cannot learn well under PPSMI? Had there been enough national school parents who support PPSMI, do you not think the BN and its media would have pitted the vernacular school lobbyists against the national-school parents, since they have dared to play with fire in religious and other matters?

    The vernacular school lobbyists never opposed two key feature of PPSMI: First, English medium at high schools. Why did the government repeal that portion too? Second, they also do not or cannot oppose English for national schools – that is up to the national school parents and Bahasa Malaysia lobbyists. Then why did the government abolish these two PPSMI features?

    The PPSMI has another fatal flaw and injustice that even enlightened PPSMI supporters ignore: High school commerce students. While science students can study science in English under PPSMI, commerce students are left behind. Aren’t science subjects less language-intensive and more easily translatable into English? Aren’t commerce subjects – finance, accounting, banking, logistics, economics, international trade – even more dependent on extensive English to succeed in today’s globalised world of high-end services? Commerce students also tend to face more challenging employment risks, which is bad for us all. Why did the ministry ignore this? This is just more PPSMI thoughtlessness.

    1Malaysia should mean we come to a consensus and trust based on reason — not one big government monopoly to dictate our lives, thinking, faith, information, debate, economy, and everything.

  10. eve says:

    Seriously, I hate the education system in Malaysia. It’s so unlike school in Singapore school where Chinese can study mandarin, Malays can study Bahasa Malay and Indians can study Tamil. Isn’t it a shame that one cannot speak their own mother tongue?

  11. Taiping Joo says:

    I enrolled my children in Chinese Vernacular school and am happy that they can now converse fluently in Mandarin. My wife and I are both from Missionary schools.

    Our thoughts for the next generation – when will the government devise an updated education curriculum to nurture fist class citizens to compete in the new global economy or risk being ranked at the bottom of the heap?

  12. locutus says:


    ‘As for the Malay [Malaysians], “Islamisation” of schools is most acceptable and they want more of it. It is a fact that most Malay [Malaysian] students spend an additional two to three hours in sekolah agama after their normal schooling hours.’

    I’m sorry but that sounds too much like a sweeping statement. Not all Malay [Malaysians] agree with the increased Islamisation of schools. And you make it sound as though ALL Malay [Malaysian] kids spend an ‘additional two to three hours after normal schooling hours’ every single day. That’s not true – the reason why we go for extra religious classes is for Quranic lessons (which aren’t taught at school), and even then they’re only held once, at the most twice, a week and only for an hour. They’re just like Bible study groups which if I understand correctly, are often held on Sundays. These Quranic lessons have been going on since forever and there was never any issue of them not being consistent with any concept of national unity in the 1970s.

  13. Rhan says:


    “…mainly because the exam results of students [from] the Chinese vernacular schools were badly affected by it.”
    – How you come to the conclusion “mainly”?

    “The real reason why Chinese [Malaysians] shun national schools is because they don’t like the so-called Islamisation of national schools.”
    – Perhaps but not absolute. Quality and more tolerable attitude towards non-mainstream cultural activities including language could be another factor, you may call this less Islamisation but I can’t think of a reason why we can’t have both in parallel form. Hey, don’t we have prestige schools with names like St John, Catholic, St Mary and Methodist?

    “…as many national schools also teach Mandarin as a subject.”
    -Huh? How many is many?

    “The first item on the fix list must be to abolish all vernacular schools!”
    -This would normally be too stupid to merit a response.

  14. Farouq Omaro says:

    As a matter of personal opinion, I think that Chinese, Tamil and Islamic schools should be done away with. Arabic, Chinese, Tamil, Kadazandusun and Iban meanwhile should be taught during school hours replacing Moral Education and Civics. But this is merely my opinion and I know many of you out there would disagree.

  15. Sloane says:

    I agree with kahseng and Omaru on their issues. Great job!

    For parents who say they are proud of the badge that their child can speak Chinese – but at what price? What price are we willing to pay for six years in that hellish environment? Taught in one, allow me my opinion as a witness to crimes against humanity.

    I used to be one of those misinformed parents who thought being able to speak Mandarin nowadays is the new in-thing, the sort of badge you needed to pin on your child to be known as a cool parent, the way it was back then (nowadays for Koreans or Taiwanese) to give your child an English name and have them speak accented “Englishes”!

    Let’s take advantage of our diversity and allow choices. Not enough teachers? Liberalize the whole system! Teacher training is a joke – anyone who has learned something well can start teaching it. Teacher training is a joke because we’re trying to train people who weren’t really good at learning in the first place.

    Anyone who finds they like teaching whatever they do will naturally find themselves willing to do grad studies in it. Absolutely no need for licensing – as if we don’t know teaching licenses is a matter of submitting a form and some photocopied standard documents! Now, where’s that book Liberating Learning???? 😉

  16. Student says:

    I was from a Chinese primary school. Back then, I really thought I was in hell, but as I grew older, I realised that Chinese schools were not that bad. There was a tonne of homework, yes, and always associated with the “all memorise, no understanding” theory. But if we had not been taught to memorise, I doubt that any of the students would have remembered anything. When we were children, all we wanted was play, and all we feared was the cane. If we were not forced to memorise, and instead were allowed to play all we wanted, what would we have learnt? Thanks to the cane, we managed to do it.

    As a child, we were not mature enough to know what shame is, and when it came to discipline, caning was more effective than standing outside of the class. Now I thank my teachers for caning me as it showed that they really cared for our studies, unlike when I went to a national secondary school, where teachers didn’t care if we did anything. I found that most people who come from a national school are rather ill-mannered. Being rude in a Chinese school meant we would score ourselves a canning session, and because of that, we were shaped to be polite.

    Also, learning the Chinese language is different when you study it in a Chinese school as opposed to other schools. I have a friend who learnt Chinese for six years in a private school where English is the main language of communication. Without the environment, her Chinese language level only came up to Standard 3, whereas our mastery of the Chinese language reached Form 1 equivalent. So is it possible for us to believe in the teaching quality of the language outside of a Chinese school itself?

  17. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    I was an unofficial substitute teacher for SPM Bio in a kampung school for a month or so in 2006. I can tell you the curriculum was just as crappy as it was when I sat [for] the SPM in 2000. I had flashbacks to that ludicrous diagram of a “paya bakau” which must have been drawn by someone who’s never seen a real mangrove swamp. The big problem with PPSMI is that it’s like painting a Proton red and calling it a Ferrarri.

    My opinion is that teaching science and maths in Bahasa all the way through Form 6 would not cause problems for university undergrads if the overall quality of pedagogy was not so bad. If you don’t know what a word is and your teacher has to GIVE you a science dictionary and TELL you to look it up, the system has totally failed to teach you how to teach yourself, which is a crucial skill for anyone going into an analytical profession.

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