I believe readers are aware of the recent news that the government has just announced the lifting of quotas for local Malaysians in international schools with immediate effect.
Assuming that this is official, with this new development I see no reason why we should not have national-type English medium stream schools from primary right up to pre-university.
To level the playing field and provide equal access for all Malaysians, now the need for an English medium stream along with the national and vernacular streams becomes virtually mandatory.
Otherwise we would be allowing for double standards - favouring children from families that can afford, to follow a non-national curriculum in a medium other than the national language, while those who cannot afford the fees of international schools will have to enrol in either national or national-type primary schools and then enter national secondary schools with Bahasa Melayu as the medium of instruction.
I am sure many would welcome a move by the government to introduce the English medium stream, as it would further democratise education in our country.
And as pointed out by some, there can be a substantial number of children in our country whose mother tongue or first language is English.
However, doubts may be raised as to whether such a move would undermine national unity.
Well, it is a matter of perception.
I personally would prefer a single stream primary school system that would bring children of all races together under one roof as they begin their school life.
However the claim by supporters of vernacular and English streams that a common language is no guarantee for integration and unity seems to be valid.
We have in the last four decades or so used a national curriculum with Bahasa Melayu in national primary and secondary schools as the medium of instruction.
Our expectation was, with a common language students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds would integrate and become more united in their outlook and develop a sense of togetherness.
If we are to be sincere and open in our assessment of the outcome, we have to admit that we have fallen far short of our expectations.
Racial polarisation among our students and even among teachers have become the norm and this is reflected in many aspects of school life and the extension of this polarisation becomes even more pronounced in our tertiary institutions of learning.
Gone are the days when in school hostels and university residential colleges students of different races and religions were roomed together.
Today it has become official policy of certain universities and schools to place their hostel students according to race and religion.
It is of no use for us to be in a denial mode.
This is the reality of Malaysian life today, albeit with a few rare exceptions.
So, it is obvious that having a common medium of instruction is no real guarantee that integration and togetherness would be fostered.
There are many other forces that act on students from within and without the school.
For one, attitudes of school leadership and teachers towards students of different races and religions will certainly affect the school culture.
Are all students from different social class, race or religion made to feel accepted?
Are school policies implemented to favour all regardless of class, ethnicity and religion? Do clubs and societies and other co-curriculum activities emphasise and reinforce racial integration and values of cooperation, respect and sense of togetherness?
Of course I am not saying that marginalisation and favouritism along race and religious lines are being done blatantly.
Rather it could occur in very subtle but yet powerful ways in both national and national-type schools.
And of course, schools are not immune to influences from the outside.
Therefore, regardless of the language medium in schools, there are other more important factors which can undermine national unity and national integration in schools.
And indeed it would be interesting to see how the demography and culture of our schools change if an additional English medium stream is introduced.
There are those who have the unfounded fear that introducing the English medium stream would threaten the status and mastery of the national language and the other vernacular languages.
However a policy that upholds the status of Bahasa Melayu as the national language by making it a compulsory credit in all major exams, and at the same time adopting a vigorous policy of encouraging students to become trilingual ( by ensuring that all schools have sufficient number of well-trained teachers of Mandarin, Tamil and another indigenous language) by the time they finish their schooling years, would be a boon to the educational system and the nation's cohesion and solidarity.
Vehicle of national unity and integration
If we really want our school system to become a vehicle for national unity and national integration, it is essential that:
- Our schools and school culture reflect more and more our national characteristics centred around the principles of the Rukun Negara rather than that of any particular race, culture or religion.
- Principals and teachers are inducted into the school system with an elevated consciousness of their role in promoting unity in diversity and in instilling in the hearts of their charges the principle of the oneness of mankind.
- The teacher institutes and school leadership training institutions in the country re-examine their curriculum and emphasis given to the national philosophy of education and the Rukun Negara as well as assumptions pertaining to human nature and its implications for the teaching profession.
- Both pre-service and in-service teacher training curriculum be revised to give added emphasis in integrating values across the school curriculum and using more effective pedagogy (rather than the present approach to the teaching and assessment of moral education) that will assist students to internalise and practice values such as love for humanity, safe guarding the dignity of fellow human beings, celebrating diversity, valuing justice and unity.
- School culture does not reward academic excellence alone but also reward students who have shown personal integrity, perseverance, incremental progress in their academic performance, caring dispositions, ability to work in diverse groups and involvement in cooperative endeavours.
- School policies promote and encourage clubs and societies which are multiracial and multi-religious.
- Schools allocate more time and give more emphasis to the use the fine arts such as drama, theatre and music as well as cooperative sports to nurture cross-cultural understanding, promote the spirit of oneness and develop personal self-esteem.
- Our schools while instilling a rational patriotism and love for the country, at the same time make our students become aware of their role as a global citizen of the 21st century, appreciating the interdependence of the world and the understanding that the advantage of any of its parts can best be secured through the advantage of the whole.
- We incorporate a well-planned service-learning component into the curriculum from the very beginning of secondary school so that students get to develop their latent virtues and talents through their contribution and service to their immediate community.
- We do not overload syllabus content and instead take on the ‘less is more' approach and adopt a thematic and integrated approach to curriculum design.
- We do not glorify and exaggerate the merits of ‘straight As' in examinations at the expense of the self-esteem of others who have done reasonably well.
- Let not ‘sterling exam results' be the sole measure of effective school leadership or teacher performance.