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Not just Chinese culture vs unity

Are vernacular schools standing in the way of national unity? (© Sigurd Decroos /

AGAIN, the issue of abolishing vernacular schools in favour of a single stream system has been raised. As before, the argument is that this will inculcate national unity. Single stream advocates say the only way the different races can learn to accept one another is if they study and play together from a young age. Defenders of vernacular schools say mother-tongue education is a separate issue from racial polarisation which is institutionalised and propagated in other forms.

As someone who does not have children, I appreciate both arguments. But as I listen to my thirty-something peers who do have children, I realise their choice between national, vernacular, or even private schools, is not as clear cut as politicians and vernacular education activists make it out to be.

The choice is not just between forging racial harmony and entrenching polarisation. Nor is it solely about preserving the Chinese language and culture, as groups like Dong Zong (Chinese Schools Committees Association) are wont to argue. Sometimes, it is also not about better quality education alone. Deciding where to school a child is wrought with more complexities than that.

Ethnic diversity

For a friend whose eldest child will begin Standard One in a Chinese-language primary school next year, the common complaint about poor quality education in national schools was a secondary factor. Her greater concern was the fact that pupils in most sekolah kebangsaan are almost 90% Malay Malaysian.

Chinese characters
Chinese calligraphy (© Exploding Boy / Wiki Commons)
“Primary level education is not rocket science, so I’m not as worried about his education as much as who he will socialise with during his formative years. In a Chinese [vernacular] school, at least I can gauge the mentality of the kids he’ll be mixing with. I know that they are from average families,” she tells me.

Some readers might regard my friend’s remarks as racist. But I think what she’s trying to get at are her feelings about the fact that as more families who can afford to place their kids in Chinese-language or private schools do so, those left in national schools are inevitably from lower income and less educated families. It becomes a question of whether her son will have an environment of healthy competition and peers who can help him maintain an interest in learning.

The homogenous majority of national schools is also what’s driving cosmopolitan Malay Malaysian families to put their children in private schools. I was impressed with the parenting philosophy of Air Asia X chief executive officer Azran Osman-Rani who believes in deliberately creating a multi-racial environment for his children as part of their upbringing.

But I was also crestfallen to hear that broadminded folks like him and his wife felt they had little choice but to remove their son from a national school in favour of a private school that had a more pluralistic environment. Where does this leave our national schools?

1Malaysia in vernacular schools

The answer is further and further behind. Unless drastic measures are taken to reform national schools, it’s getting harder to sell the argument that they are the key to fostering national unity.

Chinese-language schools are said to be getting more
multi-racial (© Guillermo Ossa /
Far from it, national schools have become one-race schools. Anecdotes about pupils coming home confused after their Muslim teachers ridiculed other religions have also put parents off.

Chinese-language schools, on the contrary, are said to be getting more multi-racial as more non-Chinese Malaysian parents opt to send their children there. A Chinese-language school in Puchong is said to be unofficially implementing a quota for Malay Malaysian pupils because of high demand, says another friend whose daughter attends that school. Some Chinese-language schools also have canteens with a halal food section for Muslim students.

Would national schools display similar courtesies to non-Muslim pupils? No one expects national schools to start selling non-halal food for the minority of its students, but neither are their teachers expected to run down other religions.

Global culture

Parents, in looking to what the future holds for their children, feel that Chinese-language and private schools do a better job of preparing students for global competition. Many say that a working knowledge of spoken Mandarin will be beneficial when their kids enter the job market.

Indeed, English is actually not the most spoken language in the world. It is Mandarin, and according to the Internet Usage World Stats, 1.36 billion people speak Mandarin in the world compared to 1.25 billion who speak English. Additionally, Mandarin education is on the rise globally.

Somewhat contrary to what Chinese educationists often say, young parents today opt for Chinese-language schools out of practicality rather than for the preservation of Chinese culture. Culture is better inculcated by the family, friends have noted, while the ability to converse in Mandarin is satisfactory enough without having to master the language.

figures climbing up a staircase of books
Parents feel Chinese-language and private
schools prepare students for global competition
(© Sergio Roberto Bichara /
Another friend whose son will go to private school but is taking Mandarin tuition separately says, “The ability to speak Mandarin is important, but as I see it, the class divide is still based on how good your [command of] English is. You can be educated and rich, but if you don’t speak English [well], it’s still difficult to rise up.”

Interestingly, China itself has been described as “home to more speakers of English than any other country in the world”. Learning English is now considered the bare minimum for an education in China.

What these trends show is that the standard arguments for national schools as the solution to racial harmony, and mother-tongue education as a means to preserve culture, may be growing out of touch with reality. Vernacular schools will continue to exist, not as reservoirs of culture, but as the only alternative for basic education.

At the same time, social dynamics are changing. The class divide threatens to grow wider between Malaysians who can afford private school and those who can’t. This potentially leads to greater brain drain if Malaysia is no longer a competitive environment.

At the same time, it also appears that the vast single-race majority that are left in national schools are the ones in danger of becoming more polarised in their mindsets than the mixed race students of Chinese vernacular schools.

There is now far too much reconstruction required for our national education system, what more trying to make it a tool for fostering racial unity. Nothing effective can happen unless a massive overhaul takes place. Politicians would do better to focus on revamping national schools to make them multi-racial than to drum up rhetoric about abolishing vernacular schools at this juncture. favicon

Deborah Loh went to national school. She can’t speak Mandarin and is quite embarrassed about it.

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14 Responses to “Not just Chinese culture vs unity”

  1. lils says:

    My daughter will be entering Primary 1 next year, and I am sending her to a Chinese-medium school even though neither my husband nor I read/speak Chinese. There seems to be no choice for those of us who have insufficient money for private schooling but to send our children to Chinese-medium schools as quality of education is my main concern.

    I agree with the author’s points in this article. Quality of education and peer support/competition to enable our children to thrive in the real world is what most parents look for. Even though I know the stress and kiasu-ism is a negative factor of Chinese-medium schools, where else can I turn to? National schools have not proven themselves to be the place where bright minds are taught to think, learn and be analytical. It’s a matter of the lesser of two evils…

  2. KW Mak says:

    I went to national school too, can’t speak Mandarin, and got asked by Chinese [Malaysian] villagers how I became a councillor when I could not communicate with the people in Mandarin. I just replied that if I can’t talk to them in English, we could still talk to each other in Bahasa Melayu (or Malaysia, whichever the ministry concerned decides is correct for the day).

    Language is a communication tool. It is an added level of convenience if we can read and write in it, but it does not define who we are as a person. Don’t think you should be embarrassed about not being able to speak in Mandarin. 🙂

  3. AStudentsPointofView says:

    I agree with Deborah’s statement, “Vernacular schools will continue to exist, not as reservoirs of culture, but as the only alternative for basic education”.

    In Malaysia we have been living with people from various races and background for so long that we have somewhat adopted each other cultures in our everyday lives. I think the issue about vernacular school is not about culture but the education itself.

    Our political arena and our politicians agenda are not helping national school to progress when they can’t decide on which medium of language should be taught in national schools. The debate of teaching science and maths in English has been a nerve-racking journey for teachers who needs to be trained and re-trained in order to follow the directions of the Ministry of Education.

    As we all know, language is not something that you can master in a day or two. It requires years of practice and understanding of the language to be proficient in speaking. How do you expect teachers to teach our children when they themselves cannot even master the language, and right before they can grasp it, new changes [are] implemented?

    Although I have left my school years behind for some time, I was there to experience it when the Ministry of Education decided to change Science and Maths to English. It was disheartening to see students who are weak in the English language struggle to grasp the language and then struggle to keep up with their studies. Teachers who are not proficient enough to teach the subject in the English medium made matters worse, causing both students and teachers to sink together.

    As Deborah’s friend mentioned, primary education is not rocket science. Vernacular school gives opportunity for our children to experience and expose them to new languages. With more people around the world speaking Mandarin, is it wrong for parents to prepare their children for the future?

  4. Ellese A says:

    What a ridiculous racist spin. Following this argument our children will become more racist. Why? We don’t meet. We don’t do things together. We don’t laugh together. All with their own language and culture. All with their own racial prejudices. Malaysia is doomed with people of this thinking.

  5. Darryl Khoo says:

    I totally agree with you. Chinese [Malaysians] tend to send their children to vernacular schools due to the competitive nature. I, too, went to national school. When I was studying in Johor Baru (UTM), it was embarrassing and [I was forced] to learn [to speak] the language. Until today, I can’t read or write [in Chinese], which is too bad. Still, when you enter the working world, English will get you extra mileage.

  6. Biskut says:

    I have been told before that providing education isn’t about teaching people how to do something or ramming information down their throats, it’s about teaching people how to think. Sadly, the people in charge are more fixated on language and race. Sighz …

  7. Lee Wee Tak says:

    First of all, blaming racial disharmony on vernacular schools are part of a cover up for racist politicians’ zero sum game. No more, no less.

    I have been taught to love my country and my fellow [citizens] of all races in SRJKC … whereas race-based political parties and their extension have done more harm than good to racial relations in pursuit of maintaining their selfish aims.

    Celebrate diversity and value something that you do possess.

    The people who have been making racially divisive remarks, usually do not come from vernacular school education and as far as I know, did not utter those remarks in Chinese.

    For example, Ahmad Ismail is not from SRJK(C) background is he?

    Don’t look at Chinese or Indian languages as a divisive tool. It is an enabling device that allows Malaysians to be multi-lingual and an asset in the international business, professional, technical and political arenas.

    Only idiotic politicians and mindless citizens would want to kill off one of the rare national assets – multi-lingual ability.

    If one were to venture into China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, one would be proud to see Malaysians having good command of English and Chinese to the envy of locals; plus a “secret language” when one converses with another Malaysians.

    Stop the racist remarks, policies and practices … and race-based political orientation and parties.

  8. cheeming says:

    A very enlightening article. I went to national school but it was probably having 90% Chinese [Malaysian] students, so I guess my experience with national schools are a bit different. Thanks for sharing a broader picture of things.

    I like how you say you can’t speak Mandarin and are quite embarrased about it. I was working in Beijing for a couple of years and it was really apparent how weird it was to be a “banana” but I’ve picked up some Chinese to redeem myself 😉

  9. drparthy says:

    There are few obvious trend that most non-Malay [Malaysians] notice, but [do] not express explicitly in national type schools:

    1. Progressive Islamisation of education and school culture
    2. Progressive polarization and discrimination by teachers – on the basis of majority rule and NEP policy
    3. Teachers of generally poor motivation and enthusiasm – most of the teachers themselves were a product of national type schools and NEP products.
    4. Lack of respect shown to cultural and religious sensitivities of minority races by schools and their staff.

    Instead of coercive effortss by politician, why not concentrate on betterment to make national schools irresistible by choice, not by no choice.

  10. racist says:

    I spent 12 years in Chinese education learning Mandarin, along the way, I picked up English, I use Malay at home and a little bit of Arabic for Quran reading. While I was working with a company with boss who speaks Mandarin, he told me he will not promote me just because my parents speak Malay at home. I was there for two years, then I quit. I then join a company in which the boss speaks English, Malay and Mandarin at home. I got promoted just after my probation of three months. I think I wasted my time in Chinese Private Secondary School.

  11. Shanon Shah says:

    Deb, I’m not actually embarrassed that I don’t speak Mandarin. I just feel a sense of loss. It’s the same feeling I get not being able to speak Hindi. My parents are multilingual Malaysians. My existence embodies multiracialism. How I wish I grew up being able to learn all the languages [and dialects] that all my grandparents spoke — Hakka, Mandarin, Urdu, Punjabi.

    Malay and English I am comfortable with already, and being able to functionally converse in Kedah Hokkien is truly an advantage. Tamil I want to learn because my father speaks it fluently, too, but that’s not *his* language, if you know what I mean.

    The issue to me is not that of practicality. It is that of identity and rootedness. In a Malaysia where language is undeniably a tool of race-based politics, I dream of being a polyglot. It will be my personal way of dismantling race-based politics.

    I have racist cousins who went to national-type schools and racist cousins who went to Chinese-medium schools. I also have cousins whom I have a roaring time with, who read and speak Mandarin amazingly well and do not have a racist bone in their bodies. On this level, learning Mandarin for me is not a question of reclaiming my part-Chinese [Malaysian]ness. It’s about being able to connect with my Mandarin-speaking cousins.

    “Vernacular” also means dialect. So I don’t understand why there is so much emphasis on and obsession with Mandarin and Tamil. On this level, Hakka is actually more valuable to me than Mandarin. It is what my older aunties and their children speak. Kedah Hokkien is more valuable to me than Mandarin. It is the dialect my younger aunties and uncles and their children speak. Similarly, Punjabi is more valuable to me than Urdu. (But Urdu is sexier than Punjabi, so I want to learn both, really.)

    So “vernacular education” has different loadings for mixed-race Malaysians like myself, I think. I want to learn these languages, and I feel a sense of loss that I do not know them, but for very different reasons. And yet, something beautiful happens when I am with my multiracial family — when all else fails, we communicate in Bahasa Malaysia. It is strange, but it works.

  12. D Lim says:

    I have two boys. The first went to Singapore (I would have put him in a Chinese school if not because we returned to Malaysia when he was in Primary 1 and there was no way he could catch up in Mandarin being not gifted in languages and coming from a home where English is the main language!).

    I sent my second boy to a Chinese school although I have been told that it’s a pressure cooker (which is proven to be true especially if your kids happen to be in the top few classes) because I wanted him to learn Mandarin and I have learnt that the best way to learn a language is through immersion classes esp. if the language is not one spoken at home! Secondly, I know the teachers take education and discipline seriously in Chinese schools (perhaps too seriously). I have no regrets but I have learnt one important lesson.

    Mastering three languages (English, Mandarin and Malay) is not easy for an average student unless they are gifted in languages. So think about what you want for your children and be truthful in the assessment of the scholarly prowess.

    If national schools want to attract students from all walks of life, they must ‘lift their image’ to parents or else parents will continue to send them away from national schools to private schools. No one wants to pay the extra dollars if they can get quality education free!

  13. Banarama says:

    Can’t do Mandarin, can do English and I immerse myself in 70s disco, funk and soul music. That makes me an over-ripe banana.

  14. koko says:

    With the government to introduce Mandarin class in national school, will the Chinese [Malaysians] change their arguments?

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