COMMENT It is paradoxical that despite governmental support, Tamil education in Malaysia in the form of Tamil schools and Tamil as a subject in national schools are not being aggressively promoted by political parties, on both sides of the divide, and non-governmental organisations.
Tamil education has been taken for granted such that its eventual demise has come to be grudgingly accepted even by the Tamil community.
However, in Myanmar the situation is different. Despite the closing down of a number of schools by the nationalist regime in the past, Tamil education initiated by non-governmental organisations is flourishing.
Lack of governmental support has not prevented Tamils from collecting funds and organizing Tamil classes especially during the three-month school break.
Even after nearly 60 years of independence, Tamil schools in Malaysia are in a sad state of affairs. There are about 523 Tamil schools in the country, however, the majority of the schools are not only not fully-aided but also lack basic infrastructural facilities.
These Tamils schools are nowhere in comparison with well-equipped national and Chinese schools in the country.
However, the performance of Tamil schools children has improved tremendously over the last two decades. As more and more middle-class Indian families send their children to Tamil schools, the performance of their children are getting better.
In the few decades following independence, the performance of the Tamil school children, mostly children of the estate workers, was not up to the mark.
It was not surprising that during this time there were urgings for the closing down of Tamils schools. Even some Indian politicians went around saying that Tamil schools were impeding the performance of Tamil children and that they should be closed down.
While it was understandable for extremists within the Malay society to urge the closing down of Tamil and Chinese schools for the simple reason that they were not aiding in the integration efforts, it was not understandable why some well-educated Indians urged the closure of Tamil schools.
However, with the passage of time and with the increased awareness, support for Tamil education has gained traction.
Furthermore, with the increased racial and religious polarisation rearing its ugly head in national schools, more and more parents are feeling the need to send their children to Tamil schools.
Some of the well-known Tamil schools have big student enrolments every year so much so they have to turn away parents from registering their children in Tamil schools.
This was a far cry from those days when teachers and headmasters had to go around recruiting students by convincing the parents of the importance of Tamil education.
Up until the 1960s, there were more than 1,000 Tamils schools in the country. However, today the number is about half. A variety of reasons led to the decline of Tamils schools.
First, the commercialisation and urbanisation leading to the sale of estate lands have led to the closing down of many Tamil schools in the country. When estates were sold off, Indian families, whether they were compensated or not, left in huge numbers to urban areas.
Second, the MIC’s ill-conceived plan to merge smaller Tamil schools into bigger ones led to the closing down of many schools.
This merger plan spelt disaster to many Tamil schools in the country and the community had to no choice but had to sacrifice their licences.
Third, lack of development fund for Tamil schools and the inability of the community to sustain some of these schools meant in the long run the inevitable closure.
Even though there are 523 Tamil schools, there are some schools in the country especially in states like Perak, Johor and Negri Sembilan that do not have enough students. There is fear that if the enrolment does not increase or if facilities are not improved, these schools might face the dim prospect of closure.
Tamil school education is something that the Tamil community is proud of. Its existence and continuation cannot be predicated on the basis of its economic value to the community. It is a fundamental right of Indian Malaysians to have mother-tongue education.
Tamil education is only at the primary level. After six years of education in this vernacular scheme, students have to pursue their secondary and post-secondary education in national schools where Malay is the medium of instruction.
This is the reason why the Penang state government sought permission from the Education Ministry to build a Tamil secondary school on a piece of land that was identified.
However, the education minister then, Muhyiddin Yassin, rejected the application on the grounds that there was no constitutional provision for the establishment of secondary Tamil schools in the country.
Such a rejection did not make sense and it is an anomaly because there are secondary national schools, Chinese schools and private schools.
The BN government fears that if Penang is allowed to set up a Tamil secondary school then it would not be able to stem the desires of Tamils in other states like Perak, Selangor, Kedah, Negri Sembilan and Malacca.
If you can have primary Tamil schools, it does not make sense why you can’t have secondary Tamil schools as long as these schools follow the national educational curriculum.
It is widely believed that Tamil secondary schools will contribute towards enhancing mother tongue education and at the same raise the standard of Tamil in the country, especially for those who intend to become teachers in vernacular schools.
Apart from the Penang state government, no other state government is willing to accommodate and advance Tamil education in the country. While lip-service is often paid to the protection of Tamil schools, nothing substantial has been done to improve or upgrade the standard of Tamils in schools.
Pupils Own Language (POL)
Even at the national level, the teaching of Pupils Own Language (POL) programme has not been systematically implemented. School headmasters and supervisors provide all kinds of excuses in not having POL classes and if at these are allowed, they held during non-school hours.
The ruling party in Malaysia has no love for vernacular Tamil and Chinese schools. Since it would be difficult to do away with these schools without inviting a public outcry, other means are employed means, both legal and political, are employed to stunt the development of vernacular education.
Unfortunately, non-Malay politicians in the BN, ostensibly the so-called champion of vernacular education, have lost the gumption to fight and advance the interest of non-Malay communities. Lacking grass-roots level support and simply surviving on the basis of a lifeline given by Umno, these leaders have lost their mandate.
Tamil school education or for that matter vernacular education is facing serious challenges from forces opposed to their existence. Without fail, every now and then, there are urgings from extremists to do away with the vernacular schools on the grounds that they are standing in the way of national unity or integration.
However, these elements fail to realise that fervour for vernacular schools continuation comes from the failure of national schools to accommodate the interests of the non-Malay communities.
Racism and religious bigotry are the reasons why Tamil and Chinese students increasingly seek the educational sanctuary of vernacular schools to escape the racial ‘oppression’.
P RAMASAMY is Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang and the state assemblyperson for Perai.