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Defending Chinese schools

DR Kua Kia Soong has been a Chinese educationist since 1983 when he became the higher education adviser for Dong Jiao Zong, the Chinese education movement.

The former DAP Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya didn’t benefit from a Chinese-language education himself. He chose to learn Mandarin as an adult. And in 1985, his book The Chinese Schools of Malaysia was published, now into its fourth edition.

Kua, who was detained in 1987 under the Internal Security Act during Operasi Lalang, has since 1995 been the New Era College principal. The college is owned by Dong Jiao Zong.

Even though Kua’s contract, which ends on 31 Dec 2008 has not been renewed because of internal politicking within the movement, he remains passionate about Chinese education.

In an exclusive interview on 16 Dec 2008, he shares his views with The Nut Graph about Chinese schools following Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir’s proposal for a single education system. Kua says the Umno Youth chief candidate’s suggestion is nothing new, and will fail.

TNG: What do you think of Mukhriz’s proposal in general?

Kua: This is not a new point of view. It started from the Barnes report in 1951, way back during colonial times when they were trying to have one system. Ever since then, Umno, the ruling party, has always had a policy with the ultimate objective of having a single education system.

This is seen in the Razak report of 1956. Since then, you’ll find that in one way or another, Umno leaders have always put forward this point of view. Mukhriz is the latest and the lowest-ranking leader to say this. In fact, it’s nothing new. During Operation Lalang, it was also heard, [in fact] since independence. The 1961 Education Act again was an attempt to meet this target of having one system of education.

(Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) had a famous speech [during his premiership] of having one system. But at the end, it was interesting that he came out with a statement that he had given up on this concept of assimilation. (Assimilation) was part of the national cultural policy in the 1980s.

The ruling party has got an agenda of wanting a one-language policy but then every election, for example in the last election [March 2008], you find that the non-Malays have gone against the Barisan Nasional (BN). At the same time, a sizeable proportion of Malay voters have also gone against the BN.

I think (Umno) is in a quandary whether to become more racist or more moderate. And you will find that in Umno, as in all kinds of politics, the ones who are not the incumbents, like Mukhriz, will try to be a Malay hero by coming out with such statements. Whereas the incumbents, they aim to be more moderate. That is why Mukhriz’s speech is really a bid for the Umno Youth post.

But do you think that a single education system will actually work in Malaysia?

It has not worked and it will not work. First of all, there’s a question of hypocrisy. Mother tongue education is a human right for the Chinese, for the Indians, for the Malays. You’ll be surprised that during colonial times, Malay language was in a worse position than Chinese and Tamil. So during colonial times, the Malays, Chinese and Tamils were fighting for a mother tongue education system.

Malaysia has quite a unique system because we’re probably the only system in the world [with] such a well established mother tongue education system.

Since independence, this human right for Chinese and Tamil schools to exist has been written into the Federal Constitution and the 1957 Education Ordinance. That has become part of our fundamental liberties. Whether it can ever be done away with…politically, I don’t think it’s possible.

But the hypocrisy I’m talking about is the fact that mother tongue education is a human right whereas a one-race political party is not a human right. You have parties like Umno, the MCA and MIC existing based on race and they can tell you straight to your face that they have a right to exist. To me, it’s ridiculous. How can you have a political party that prevents other races from joining? It’s blatant racism and that’s not just Umno, it’s MCA and MIC as well.

The other thing is that we have public institutions in this country such as UiTM (Universiti Teknologi Mara), which is 100% Malay, and we even had the previous education minister saying that as long as he was a minister, he would not allow a single non-Malay to be admitted to UiTM. UiTM today is one of the biggest public institutions in the country, with about 100,000 students in campuses all over the country. That’s a very, very sizeable institution. For such a sizeable public institution to be so blatantly racist, I don’t see how anybody can talk about Chinese and Tamil schools being segregational.

Chinese schools have been increasingly admitting non-Chinese, mainly Malays; about 10% of the population in Chinese schools (in the country), which is about 60,000 to 80,000. That is the irony of it. The other thing to note about Chinese or Tamil schools is that you don’t hear about any instances of racism but you hear a lot of instances of racism in national schools, so that’s the other irony of it.

What causes polarisation then?

Polarisation, I’m sure everyone can see in this country, is caused by blatant racial discrimination. I wrote a book before I was detained in 1987 called Polarisation in Malaysia: The Root Causes.

Can you elaborate what you mean by blatant racial discrimination?

The whole New Economic Policy is racially discriminatory. The fact that you have a quota system, which has been abused so much in education, the fact that you can have discounts in housing, which doesn’t discriminate between a rich or poor Malay.

So you don’t agree that polarisation starts from schools?

No, it’s never been [like that]. And why should it? [The argument] doesn’t stand.

Whenever there are any studies about polarisation in universities [for example], ministers and government leaders have said that the spectrum of polarisation in national institutions is very serious. On the other hand, nobody has done a study on polarisation in Chinese or Tamil schools.

So what do you propose for national unity?

First of all, there should not be any racial discrimination. Positive discrimination should be based on sectors of class, for example if you think that poverty exists in plantations, then the plantations sector should be targeted. If that happens to be majority Indians, then so be it, but at least you’re targeting the sector or a class. And then if you target another poor area, such as the farming sector in the peninsula, probably the majority will be Malays but there are also rural villages of Chinese.

And in East Malaysia, I’m sure the indigenous people there will be affected. So you’ll be targeting a sector, or a class, you won’t be targeting a race. I’m sure racial polarisation will be lessened. If I were in control in this country, I would outlaw racially-based organisations like political parties. If political parties are racially based, it doesn’t say much for that country. I would make affirmative action race-free, simple as that.

For example in this college (New Era College), we have multi-cultural scholarships for non-Chinese, and non-Chinese can be admitted into this college if they can get into any course. Whereas for the Chinese, they need better grades to get the scholarship. That is to balance the proportion of the different ethnic communities in this college.

But then there is also the sunset clause. Once the proportion is more balanced, then maybe this policy can be reviewed. That is always the fundamental principle of affirmative action. It’s never for infinity.

Do you agree with Dr Mahathir’s vision schools?

The reason why Chinese and Tamil schools have always opposed vision schools is mainly because it’s a question of faith in Umno. The Chinese school sector has never had any faith in Umno on this issue because past examples do not bode well for the success of this scheme. The Chinese schools have always opposed vision schools because they’ll invariably end up as Malay schools, based on examples we have in the past.

In the 80s, there was already a concept of an integrated school, which was the same model as vision schools. The Chinese schools opposed it. Then there was an agreement with the government, and the Chinese schools lobbied for integrated activities, which meant that the Chinese schools, the Tamil schools and national schools would have integrated activities. That is the concept that Dong Jiao Zong agreed to and that is the model that we could follow.

For example, we could build Chinese, Tamil and Malay schools together and then we could share a common playing field for football or basketball, and then schools could be built around these facilities. You can get a stadium, for example, for all of them to share.

Vision schools invariably failed because the Malay schools would say you can’t have Chinese food in the canteen because of the halal issue, and that assemblies have to be done in Malay. After a while, what’s the point?

That is the example of the past. That is why the Dong Jiao Zong has never trusted the Umno government with this — because it has always failed.

How do you think the country can move forward if everybody keeps going separate ways?

Like I said, the Chinese schools are getting more and more non-Chinese students. A lot of Malays have a lot of faith (in Chinese schools). If we have a government that the Chinese school lobby could trust, where Chinese, Malay and Tamil are taught in one school, if it comes to that one day, I’m sure they will agree to it.

Umno still has not given up its policy with its ultimate objective: to make Malay the dominant and only medium in this country. As long as that exists in the education system and in the Razak report, you can’t expect (Chinese schools) to have faith in Umno policies.

But if, say, one day Pakatan Rakyat comes into power and they do not hold this policy, I’m sure things will change and Dong Jiao Zong will be quite prepared to accept. Who wants to run their own schools and tax the community twice when you can have government aid to do it?

In 1961, the government said either you join the national schools or become independent schools. Some schools couldn’t afford to be independent so they joined the national system. And what was left was about 14 schools that wanted to maintain their independent status and would not compromise on their medium of instruction. The 14 grew to 60. But 60 is not a lot because in the colonial days, there were 78 Chinese secondary schools. So, it is based on that painful experience that the Chinese schools decided to go on their own.

What is your definition of a Malaysian?

You must not forget that in the Chinese and Tamil schools, Malay and English are compulsory subjects. You need to pass those subjects to get by. In Chinese and Tamil schools, the curriculum is a national curriculum. So they’re Malaysian because the constitution guarantees their existence.

What more do you want? Do you want to have national schools? We have so many of them in this country but you can’t get unity there. You have public institutions like universities, polytechnics and everything else which are the same system, and you can’t get unity there.

So what do you mean by Malaysian? I’m a Malaysian. My children all went to Chinese schools. Aren’t they Malaysians?

On the question of more non-Chinese attending Chinese schools, it is because they believe in the quality of Chinese schools?

Doesn’t that say a lot about the way national schools are run? The way these community schools are run? That’s what education is all about, isn’t it? Education is all about producing disciplined, cultured, professional students. And if the national schools fail to do that, isn’t that more telling of the national schools than the Chinese and Tamil schools?

But we shouldn’t turn around and say that Chinese and Tamil schools are not Malaysian schools because they are. They are the examples of Malaysia Boleh because we’re probably the only system in the world that manages to do that. The government by right should be helping. Lots of Tamil schools are in terrible condition, physically.

Why do we need to preserve community schools? Is it merely to preserve a community’s culture?

I would say that the Chinese schools are of good quality, not because they are good in Maths and Science but mainly because the community takes an interest in their schools, that’s why they’re good. A lot of people don’t see that.

Do you know that there are at least three organisations that run Chinese schools? (In fact), you have four different associations taking an interest in schools. But of course, fundamentally it’s about ensuring mother tongue education for your children.

See also: Teaching in English: Do or don’t

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10 Responses to “Defending Chinese schools”

  1. Maggie Loo says:

    In both tone and the nature of the questions, Elizabeth Looi has offered neither direction nor insight into the sense of things. She revealed instead the banality of her thoughts, and especially the racism in her approach. Her questions reflect the kind of argument one sees in a recent letter to Malaysiakini by a chap named Frankly Speaking and from Khoo Kay Kim. Other than coming across as Anglo-philic, Looi’s questions echo both men’s letters. For rebuttal, see for example:

  2. Ahmad says:

    Don’t be silly. How can Elizabeth Looi be racist to her own race? It’s the same sort of approach that other Nutgraphers take with their interviewes, be they Malay, Indian, Muslim and the like. Would someone questioning Mukhriz like that be called a racist too?

    Unfortunately, because of the distrust by all races in Malaysia, I can see no way forward but to agree with the call for a singular school system. In most Western countries, like France, this has been the way. Faith-based schooling has been a way out, but now, due to the rise of racial ghettos and polarisation, they too are being reviewed.

    Even if Umno were to disappear and corruption and NEP-ism were rooted out and replaced with transparency and fairness, racial polarisation will continue.

    I honestly see no way out but to support the call for a single school system. Unfortunately.

  3. Siew Eng says:

    I’m surprised that Maggie Loo can even discern the tone of the questions, brief as they are. As to their nature, one of the functions of a reporter is to play the devil’s advocate and get discussions going, which Elizabeth Looi did. By putting forward the racist sentiments out there, she gave the interviewee a chance to rebut them – and boy, do we need to do a lot of that. My only beef – and it’s only a tiny one – is the sudden introduction of the subject of a Malaysian identity, without first stating how it is supposedly linked to the issue of vernacular schools.

    As for eradicating racism, it’s the values you teach and exemplify, not the language in which it is done, that goes to the heart of it. And the race-based political parties are the most glaringly bad examples out there, their raison d’etre further perpetuating perspectives from a racist lens. With these parties as the government, putting in place policies that are as myopic as they are, what hope is there for Malaysia as a nation?

  4. Andrew I says:

    I was a fan of Dr Kua during his prolific era in the Star during the mid eighties. His economic and political commentaries of the time were spot on.

    I might not be as enthusiastic about his present cause. Nevertheless, it’s nice to hear his sound logic again.

    Great interview. Cheers.

  5. kayuu says:

    Talk to the Chinese educationists in Malaysia and they will tell you they are so proud of “their” superior system, and they can rattle off a host of data to support it. They are a racist lot and their justification for being one is because the others, the Malay polity in particular, are equally racists. It is a mindset that perpetuates racism. Sure there are some non-Chinese in the Chinese schools, but tokenism has become an art form on both sides of the cultural divide.

    The reporter did asked a very pertinent question: how can the nation move forward if the people persist in going their separate ways? Dr Kua’s reply is typical of those who disagree that twp wrongs do not make it right. To them it’s the Chinese culture that is stake here; without Chinese schools there will be no Chinese culture. I wish they would tell that to the other ethnic Chinese living in non-Sino environments. Please get real, this is 2008 or 2009 soon, and get out of the racist tempurung. The younger non-Malays, like their Malay counterparts, are sick and tired of the older generations’ infatuation with chauvinism and racism.

  6. Peter says:

    It’s nothing new. Like the man said, they had bad experiences. The government had to be sincere first. I guess it is a long shot!

  7. Born2reign says:

    Education is the right of the parents, not for the government to decide. Whether my children adopt Chinese or French as their medium, that is for us as parents to decide.

    Why not do away with Malay national schools? They have race-based policies, poor quality teachers and enable gangsterism.

    In my experience, there was only one dedicated Malay teacher in all my 12 years studying in a convent school (government system) but I must say all the Chinese teachers were dedicated, i.e. they would repeat the subject until the student understood the topic. Of course, things may have changed.

    So let’s be objective and choose the system with the most dedicated teachers and continuously produces the best students, recognised by countries all over the world. Singapore is of course very happy with Malaysia donating our best students to their economy. Many of these good students come from missionary or Chinese independent schools, hardly any from government schools.

    Are we ready to abolish the defunct government schools, Mukhriz?

    The government and public universities should just stick to outlining the key subjects and CORE syllabi required for university entrance. Let the academicians and PTA decide on HOW to teach these syllabi, free from politicians. In fact politicians should be banned from schools and universities policies.

    Whether Malay or non-Malay, if you are useless to the society or the economy, what was the whole investment in government schools for? It was a waste of childhood and HR development. So upon graduation is it the private companies’ responsibility to ensure the incompetent are employed and are burdened with training fresh graduates who can’t even add up 10 numbers correctly?

    Schools in developed countries are now working to develop competent and idea-producing students as opposed to our robotic straight-A students who struggle to complete an Oxford form. We are still in a race-quota stone-age era.

    I believe the BN government wants to destroy what is good and liberating for the rakyat. The government schools are “brain-washing” institutions to imprison the rakyat for life, hence BN can stay in power. We can’t have thinking, questioning, rakyat in Malaysia.

  8. Born2reign says:

    I think you are confusing chauvinism with pride. Chauvinism is insisting you are right even though you have poor results or rotten fruit. Pride is insisting you are right because it is proven your decision has given good fruit.

    Just check the fruits from both government and independent schools and you will guess who, Mukhriz or Dr Kua, is the chauvinist.

  9. kayuu says:

    Dear Born2reign (re post 28 Dec 08 : 4.06PM),
    There is no confusion. One can take great pride in doing all the wrong things. Hitler and Idi Amin were extremely proud of what they did. Of course Kua is not in the same league with these guys but his chauvinism or pride (your word) is merely helping to perpetuate ethnic and cultural divisions in the country. Mukhriz is equally chauvinistic. Like I said earlier, two wrongs don’t make a right.

    “I think you are confusing chauvinism with pride. Chauvinism is insisting you are right even though you have poor results or rotten fruit. Pride is insisting you are right because it is proven your decision has given good fruit.

    Just check the fruits from both government and independent schools and you will guess who, Mukhriz or Dr Kua, is the chauvinist.”

    • Mandi says:

      There are ethnic and cultural divisions in this country because of the education system. The problem with the education system is that kebangsaan schools are too incompetent while Tamil and Chinese-language schools divide the nation culturally … Why not do it this way, abolish kebangsaan schools, let all Malay either go to Chinese or Tamil-language schools so they will be advantaged linguistically as well as learn the national language in both types of schools. Good idea?

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