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Vernacular schools detrimental to unity

Chan Siang Yen has written in to complain regarding the government's lackadaisical attitude towards the maintenance of vernacular schools. I absolutely agree that it is foolhardy not to adequately fund vernacular schools.

When we are rich in oil and human resources, no school funded by the government should have to pinch its pennies or start scrounging for money just to ensure its teachers and students don't die in a preventable mishap. If we're going to do something, either we fully commit to it, or we don't commit at all. Half-hearted commitment is the sure way to cause a lot of trouble for everyone involved.

However, I think it's time we start looking in the long-term. Chan questions the wisdom of uniting "Malaysians under one language through education" as an " ideology that is not even proven to be effective locally".

I beg to differ, and agree with Hashim Shaari : vernacular schools are unquestionably detrimental towards national unity. I care little for the question of what language to unite our students under. I care more for the question of how to unite them in the first place. Racial polarisation is an unpleasant reality we all have to live with. Unfortunately, I fear that if the present system continues, we may be headed down the path to disaster.

Already in a national secondary school, I have noticed the difference in the way students from national primary schools and vernacular primary schools interact. In Form One, my classmates from vernacular schools shied away from the Indian students of our class, while those of us from national schools eagerly played games like tic-tac-toe with them to pass the time.

Even in Form Three, while the Chinese-educated of my class kept their distance from a Sikh classmate of ours, the national school students eagerly established a friendship with him. To put it bluntly, vernacular schools are splitting our children apart into little cliques where the criteria for admission is to be of the right race.

This will clearly have disastrous repercussions for our nation, especially seeing how jittery racial tensions can get on occasion. (Anyone still remember the big brouhaha in Parliament about the LRT advertisement that showed a Malay youth being rude to others?)

You see, when you don't get to know people of a particular race, your opinion of that race, especially when you are young, is liable to be shaped by the comments of others about it. When parents make remarks about "inefficient Malay civil servants" or "greedy Chinese towkay", it is not too great a stretch for young minds to start viewing all Malays or Chinese as lazy or greedy. And when stereotyping starts, trouble is soon to follow.

As we have witnessed, it is all too easy for the more radical Malays to start yelling for the blood of those who oppose their ketuanan or "rights". In my opinion, such incidents are likely to increase in frequency as long as many Malays continue to view the Chinese and Indians through the tinted glasses of stereotyping.

The only efficient way to combat this is by ensuring a good mix of students in national schools. I don't think a Malay would wave the keris if he was exposed to the cultures and viewpoints of others through his friends. Whenever a group of people inflict genocide on another race, their propaganda always dehumanises the victims, often through stereotyping. By preventing our young from mixing with friends of other races, we are playing into the hands of those who would rather have a divided Malaysia than a united one.

However, a simple truth remains undeniable: Chinese schools are doing an excellent job when it comes to academics and discipline while receiving about two percent of what national schools get. Where is all that money going to in our national schools? The government needs to buck up and get serious on education in national schools. I firmly believe the only way to tackle the problem of racial polarisation in schools is to make national schools a viable alternative.

We need teachers in national schools to be as dedicated and hardworking as those in Chinese schools. We need Pupils' Own Language (POL) classes that are as effective as Mandarin/Tamil classes in vernacular schools. (We might even consider introducing English as a medium of instruction, as Hashim Shaari has suggested.) Only then will parents like Chan be able to seriously consider national schools as a viable choice for their children's education, and only then will we be able to being building a nation that is united.

Even so, I feel that our existing syllabus and curriculum are seriously stunted and fail to prepare students for the realities of the world. To take just one instance, students only learn one year of world history (in Form Four) under the newest revised syllabus, with the other four years of history classes is spent on Malaysian history.

Just compare this with how things were 40 years ago: I have primary school books from the 60s that discuss such historical figures as Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Ghandi and Asoka. Our whole education system is in dire need of reform.

That is why I am preparing to publish a book entitled Why Your Kid Hates School . A 15-page excerpt from the book is already available online . The problem of rotten school facilities or inadequate school funding is just one dimension of a larger problem.

I firmly believe our entire education system is rotten to its very core, and I hope that this is a situation that we can work together to change. If any Malaysiakini readers have anecdotes of your own to contribute, or feedback concerning my book, you can contact me by either replying to the message board post I linked to, or emailing me at [email protected]