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