LETTER | In the 60s and 70s, the national school system was the norm. Private, vernacular and religious schools were negligible. What happened with the direction taken by national schools since then that has caused parents to move their children away?
Rightly or not, it is the perception that in national schools, there is a lack of standards and only the majority race and religion are being catered for.
I came from a national school background in the 70s. Twenty or so years later, in the 90s, whilst my children were also in national schools, more than 80 percent of their peers were already in vernacular schools such that they themselves found the difference in mindset and personal preferences distinct enough that it contributed to my daughter ending up with a non-Chinese spouse.
That said, my children were the only non-bumiputera in their class in the so-called "smart" school and from that immersion, they now excel in Bahasa Sarawak and have more non-Chinese friends compared to their peers.
So no, I don't root for vernacular schools but I support the right to diversity in education in the context of our multi-ethnic society. I have read that Muslim Pakatan Harapan leaders get it worse than DAP leaders in the current race/religion quagmire so perhaps this is the reason why the call for a single-stream system is hitting the headlines again.
To help us move out of this dangerous decline in race relations, the suggestion of a single-stream system by several personalities including the Bersatu supreme council member, Tariq Ismail, whom I continue to respect and regard as a progressive, moderate Muslim, is doable not by force but by making national schools the school of choice as in the 60s.
I respect that Islam is the national religion and Islamic religious lessons should continue but suggest that the periods allotted to Moral Studies for non-Muslims be used to teach the Pupils' Own Language (POL). In that way, many of those who worry about not studying Mandarin, whether the motive is to learn mother-tongue language or for economic/carrier purposes, will return. For my children who had no choice but to take Moral Studies, the criteria to pass the subject was to regurgitate word-for-word what was taught about nilai-nilai murni.
By asking the non-Muslim students to take this subject and exempting Muslims students, has the government been indirectly enforcing the notion that non-Muslims require academic moral lessons?
Also, revamp the Civics Education module where all students are taught about the various religions, inter-faith harmony, citizenship and loyalty to the nation plus of course, civic manners and social skills. All students must go through the same lessons to sustain the faith and trust of parents that the national schools provide a level-playing ground for their children to learn and adapt to each other.
Return the national school culture to that of a multi-cultural Malaysia and not purely a Malay/Muslim environment. Malay/Islam is the majority race/religion but nationally, some 50 percent are from other races and faiths. So by taking the direction to "Islamise" the school environment, the government has shot its own foot.
Additionally, boost English, Mathematics, Science & IT while monitoring the kind of Islam being taught - that Islam is a religion of peace and compassion and not the Islam that teaches that "Muslim-students-cannot-sit-down-non-Muslims" type of indoctrination. These suggested changes will not require a 180 degree U-turn or be perceived as threats to bangsa dan agama.
It is important to heed research studies that point out that “an all-Malay environment in national schools also provides space for a proliferation of more conservative and racially-skewed sentiments which are less likely to emerge in a more diverse setting”. And that many from vernacular schools experience difficulties as an adult in making deeper and more meaningful connections with Malaysians of different ethnicities because they lack the confidence to express themselves fully in the national language that they learnt due to lack of non-Chinese friends to practice their BM with in the vernacular schools.
According to my son, in his professional circle, most of his Chinese friends have planned for their children to be registered in private schools whilst his non-Chinese friends have opted for vernacular schools. Nobody from his circle is even considering national schools. He himself is caught in-between wanting his kid to experience the integration he had in his school days yet worried about the lack of standards and avenues to learn Mandarin, the language of China, the world’s largest economy by purchasing power.
Add to that, a friend who had the opportunity to consult a government agency shared that the Malay officer from Semenanjung has enrolled his child in a vernacular school. The irony of it all.
To me, I blame this divide (intentional or not) on government policy directions over the last few decades. It is still continuing and something should be done to correct this unintended consequence of segregation. The consequence of segregation at the school level is far deeper as it extends to adulthood and results in our children and future generations losing the ability to live together. Already research studies have shown issues at the workplace over what should have been mundane matters like sharing refrigerator space or microwaves.
Not having the opportunities to learn how to "negotiate their own boundaries and find ways to share the same space to meet their different needs respectfully" in their formative years in schools, "many Malaysians in their adulthood find it is easier to just segregate themselves and adopt the ‘So you go for your own lunch and me for mine’ lifestyle".
Is that what we want? The change has to start in schools. Replacing Moral Studies lessons with POL classes is one constructive suggestion to return national schools as the school of choice for Malaysians.
The writer is a believer in citizens’ participation for the common good. A grandmother, she is an active member of Rise of Social Efforts (Rose), an advocacy group in Sarawak upholding democracy through citizens’ participation in the democratic process.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.