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The United Chinese Schools Teachers' Association (Jiao Zong) and United Chinese School Committees' Association (Dong Zong) are no strangers to controversy these days.

But little was known about the duo, collectively known as Dong Jiao Zong, within the non-Malaysian Chinese community until in recent years.

During the National Day celebration in 2000, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad on a live telecast had likened the educationist movements, and a lobby group called Suqiu, to 'communists' and 'extremists' of the past.

The aversion against Dong Jiao Zong goes beyond Mahathir. At the Umno annual general assembly last month, a Youth leader warned the two groups that they will be treated harshly (like Suqiu) if they persist in propagating mother-tongue education.

Many may wonder why Dong Jiao Zong had always got itself into trouble with the establishment, the latest bone of contention being Vision School and the switch to English for Mathematics and Science starting next year.

Yet anyone familiar with the history of Dong Jiao Zong would find it understandable both of them have indeed been at loggerheads with the government over national education policies for decades now.

'Part of their destiny'

Dong Zong chief executive officer Bock Tai Hee said the disagreement between the educationist movements and the government was already "part of their destiny" the day when Jiao Zong was set up in 1951, followed by Dong Zong in 1954.

"We started and are still continuing with our mission to preserve mother-tongue education in a pluralistic society, and the government has never given up its intention to create a monolingual education system using only Bahasa Melayu as the teaching medium," he said.

This could not be more true. The impasse between the associations and the establishment will remain as long as neither side is willing to budge. In fact, their disagreement seems to have only heightened and intensified with each passing day.

For the case of Jiao Zong, the body exceeds the function of just a union fighting for the benefits of its members. Jiao Zong was a result of the sense of danger on the teachers' part.

Teachers, at least in the past, were highly respected within the Chinese community and were seen as "custodians of Chinese education".

They felt that their positions and the status of Chinese education were threatened when in 1951 the British colonial government released the controversial Barnes Report which proposed a national education system in both English and Malay at the primary level and in English at the secondary level.

That aside, Jiao Zong was also set up at a time before Independence when over 6,000 teachers serving in some 1,200 Chinese schools in the Federation of Malaya were poorly paid something between $65 to $120 monthly. Their counterparts in English schools were instead paid between $240 to $400.

In Jiao Zong manifesto

So from the onset, Jiao Zong was already determined to "uphold Chinese culture and education and to cooperate with the government in improving Chinese education"as well as "to solve problems such as poor salaries and insecure tenure faced by teachers", as stated in its inaugural manifesto.

One of the strong advocates of this ideology was Jiao Zong's late president Lim Lian Geok, a first generation migrant from China.

Dong Zong which represented school managers and committee members, mostly businessmen who funded the schools during the early days, also shared Lim's sentiment and therefore formed a pact with Jiao Zong.

But in the eyes of the British government, later the Alliance government, Dong Jiao Zong symbolised a direct challenge to the education policy and was often associated with radical leftist movement in a broad-brush manner.

After all, most of the first generation leaders of Dong Jiao Zong were from mainland China and had displayed some kind of allegiance to Chinese culture and China's political developments at that time.

Realising this mindset among some of his peers, Lim started to champion a new political identity and loyalty to the Federation of Malaya in an unprecedented fashion.

One famous quote from a speech he made in 1955 was, "We, the Chinese, who are born and bred here, already look on Malaya as our home; we must of course be concerned about Malaya's future, even more we must be concerned about the welfare of all Malayans."

In 1956, as part of a confidence-building measure, Lim even wrote a Hari Raya Puasa greeting for Utusan Melayu , a leading Malay daily, in which he told the "migrant people" to "cultivate the outlook that Malaya is our first homeland [because] your descendants are the sons and daughters of Malaya".

New Salary Aid Scheme

This might have been well-received by the British and later the Alliance. Still, the government became more determined to bring Chinese schools into its fold and wanted to promote a monolingual education system for nation building.

A new salary aid scheme was introduced to improve working conditions for teachers and to exert better control over Chinese primary schools.

Since late 1950s, the fairly short-lived, cordial relationship between the government and Dong Jiao Zong through 'middle-man' MCA, a component party in the ruling coalition representing Malaysian Chinese that had arranged numerous 'behind-the-scenes meetings' with education officials, began to deteriorate.

After the 1959 elections, Dong Jiao Zong was completely cut off from these meetings.

The Talib Committee which was set up to review education policies, came up with a report which suggested that the aspirations of various communities to continue with mother-tongue education were simply "incompatible" with nation building with Bahasa Melayu as the official language.

The report recommended all Chinese secondary schools to either change their medium of instruction so as to receive government aid as national schools or to become self-financing private schools.

Vernacular primary schools that use either Mandarin or Tamil would remain. But their existence were subject to Clause 21(b) of the 1961 Education Act which stipulated that the Minister of Education could instruct the change of teaching medium in primary schools from English, Mandarin and Tamil to Bahasa Melayu if deemed necessary.

Open confrontation

Based on the report, the Alliance government went on a year-long campaign involving state-level education department officials and MCA leaders to persuade Chinese secondary schools to drop Mandarin as teaching medium in exchange for subsidies, better job prospects for students, and better pay for teachers.

On this point, Lim took a stand and urged the schools to reject government aid and become self-reliant. The confrontation was open, with Jiao Zong and MCA leaders exchanging words in the Chinese media.

This led to another incident in 1961 that won Dong Jiao Zong support from the Chinese community Lim's teaching permit was revoked and was later deprived of his citizenship until his death in 1985.

In the end, 55 Chinese secondary schools accepted the terms of the government and converted into national schools. But 16 others chose to become independent schools.

Dong Jiao Zong did not consider that a defeat because many famous, well-established Chinese schools were among the 16 that chose to remain outside the national system.

The movements also helped set up "independent school version" for 21 out of the 55 Chinese schools which agreed to conversion earlier, an achievement which they described as a "revival".

The 21, plus the 16 and another 23 schools in Sabah and Sarawak thus become the 60 Chinese independent schools in Malaysia today.

Cannot be too vocal

Starting in the 1960s, when Chinese teachers were absorbed into the national system and paid by the government under a new pay scheme, the members and leaders of Jiao Zong realised that their new identity as 'civil servants' meant they could no longer be vocal in education issues.

Dong Zong's Bock described the deprivation of Lim's citizenship and the conversion of Chinese secondary schools as the "very first instance that had set the tone for future relationship between Dong Jiao Zong and the government".

The role of leadership within Dong Jiao Zong was then assumed by Dong Zong, an organisation which began to recruit an increasing number of professionals as members.

Unlike their predecessors, the less educated businessmen, the new Dong Zong leaders started to take a new approach in defending Chinese education and became more vocal in civil society issues.

Mother-tongue education, as they define it now, is part of the basic human rights as declared and acknowledged by the United Nations. But this did not save them from getting into trouble with the government.

In 1987, when non-Mandarin speaking Chinese were appointed as administrative staff in Chinese primary schools, Dong Jiao Zong opposed the move and rallied support nation-wide.

Operation Lalang arrests

In October that year, five movement leaders and activists, including the late Dong Zong president Lim Fong Seng (left) and the then Jiao Zong president Sim Mow Yu, were rounded up in Operation Lalang , an Internal Security Act sweep which detained 107 people.

Sim was a MCA Youth vice-chairperson until he was sacked by the party in 1967. He had tried to call for the government to accept Mandarin as an official language just before the National Language Act was enacted that year.

Upon his release from eight months' detention under the ISA, Lim said, "To say that minority communities must succumb to the political strength of the dominant community is to subscribe to an extremist racist ideology which goes against the principles of democracy and human rights."

With this stand reaffirmed, the conflict of interest between the establishment and Dong Jiao Zong continues to manifest in the forms of various issues throughout 1990s and up to this day.

This is the first part of a three-part series on Dong Jiao Zong. Part II tomorrow, available only to subscribers, will focus on the movements' relationship with political parties.