Dong Jiao Zong &#8212 education spiced with politics

The United Chinese School Teachers Association (Jiao Zong) and United Chinese School Committees Association (Dong Zong) have long realised that they would not be able to avoid politics even though their core interest is education.

Chinese-based political parties, in courting the ethnic Chinese for support, have always strived to back Dong Jiao Zong as Jiao Zong and Dong Zong are known collectively as it would serve their interests, too.

Since education in the country is determined by government policies, Dong Jiao Zong has also learnt to be pragmatic.

It saw the gains in cooperating with such parties, realising that it will pave the way for better bargaining power for its cause from within.

Thus began a long-standing tie between the movements and political parties MCA in the 1950s, Gerakan and DAP throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The strategy worked well but not for long.

As Jiao Zong chief executive secretary Yow Lee Fung admits: "We have always tried to compromise and lobby. Working with political parties was part of lobbying. In hindsight, perhaps it did not go far."

In 1952 when the British colonial government enacted the Education Ordinance based on the Barnes report, Jiao Zong threw its weight behind MCA and together they opposed the law, though with limited success.

During the 'good old days', MCA had also set up a working group dubbed the Chinese Education Central Committee which was comprised of representatives from the party and Dong Jiao Zong. The group was known as San Da or the 'Big Three'.

The historic cooperation gave access to Dong Jiao Zong to meet government officials instead of confronting Umno with regard to education policies on mother-tongue education.

The late Jiao Zong president Lim Lian Geok made it clear that they did not want to derail the fight for Independence at that time; while the first MCA president Tan Cheng Lok, despite being English-educated, was known to be interested in Chinese education and language out of high regard for his heritage.

The late Tan was also remembered for his continuous effort to convince the colonial government that vernacular schools which taught in Mandarin and Tamil should not be abolished.

Different times

But Yow laments that Tan's successors, starting with his son Siew Sin who became party president in 1961, became less committed to the cause of Chinese language and education.

"Times were also different after 1959," she says, referring to how Dr Lim Chong Eu MCA president from 1958 to 1959 had to leave the party after his demand to contest for more parliamentary seats was rejected by then Umno president Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra.

"Siew Sin was more accommodating to the wishes of Umno than his father and so were the other presidents after him," says Yow.

When the National Language Act was enacted in 1967 to introduce only Bahasa Malaysia as the sole official language and not to include Mandarin, a frustrated Dong Jiao Zong protested the decision.

However, MCA under Siew Sin resolved that "it was unable to support any move to make Mandarin an official language".

MCA Youth vice-chairperson Sim Mow Yu who was also Dong Zong president at that time was sacked from the party for refusing to back down on the matter. Today, Sim is the advisor for Dong Jiao Zong.

In recent years, the worsened relationship between MCA and Dong Jiao Zong has exacerbated due to two issues the Damansara Chinese primary school in Selangor and Vision School, both supported openly by MCA.

Dong Zong chief executive officer Bock Tai Hee says the two Chinese education movements have not shut the door for dialogues with MCA. Still, the party leaders have increasingly distanced themselves from the organisation.

When Dong Jiao Zong opposed the government's move to close the original site of SRJK(C) Damansara in a relocation project early last year, MCA was quick to label the movement as "chauvinist" and "pawn of the opposition".

Even Gerakan, a party which Dong Jiao Zong campaigned for during the1982 general election, remained silent, though its deputy president Dr Kerk Choo Ting previously voiced out his support for the re-opening of the school.

The support for Gerakan in the early 1980s came with the entry of four prominent Dong Jiao Zong leaders, including Dr Koh Tsu Koon who is now the Penang chief minister, into the party earlier.

The others were Kerk who is now deputy international trade and industry minister, former Penang state councillor Dr Kang Chin Seng and former member of parliament, the late Ong Tin Kim.

The move to back Gerakan then displeased MCA as the former was a 'junior' party within the ruling coalition which was also relying mainly on Chinese votes.

Umno factor

Prof Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim of Universiti Malaya's history department says the short-lived cooperation between Dong Jiao Zong and MCA as well as Gerakan illustrated the point that "no political party working with Umno could cultivate an organisation like Dong Jiao Zong".

The historian says because of their clashes of interests, Umno can never accept Dong Jiao Zong even though the latter only embarked on "the defensive, not offensive" measure.

"If Umno, a party dedicated to safeguarding the Malay supremacy, were to accept Dong Jiao Zong, the party will collapse."

Perhaps Dong Jiao Zong also realised the limit of what the ruling parties can do when confronted with the larger interest of preserving 'BN solidarity'.

The movement began to seek other potential 'strategic partners' outside the ruling coalition and started to see the need to highlight their plight to the non-Chinese Malaysian community as well.

In 1986, the upper echelon of Dong Jiao Zong, inspired by the young professionals who had joined the movement, organised talks and dialogues with the Islamist opposition PAS.

Nothing came out of the meetings but at least the movement began to feel more comfortable with forging ties with other non-Chinese-based organisations which are vocal in civil rights issues which of course include the right to mother-tongue education.

When PAS president Fadzil Noor passed away last month, Dong Jiao Zong even issued statements to Chinese newspapers and conveyed their condolences to the Opposition Leader's family.

In 1990, the movement chose to give its 'blessings' to several of their think-tank members to contest in that year's general election on DAP ticket.

Dong Jiao Zong also openly supported Gagasan Rakyat, an opposition pact between DAP and the now defunct Semangat 46 which was set up by a splinter group led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah from Umno.

Among the Dong Jiao Zong leaders who joined DAP were two former Internal Security Act detainees Dr Kua Kia Soong who was arrested in the infamous Operasi Lalang 1987 and Lee Ban Chen, a former newsperson and executive secretary of Dong Zong.

The duo were immediately given high posts but things turned sour in 1995. They could not agree with the party's management and organisation and chose to leave DAP.

Kua is now the principal of New Era College, a tertiary learning centre set up and managed by Dong Jiao Zong. The Kajang-based college teaches in Mandarin.

Anwar's sacking

From this point onwards, Dong Jiao Zong became less active in the political arena until the tumultuous events of 1998, when the then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from Umno and the government.

Many of the young supporters of Dong Jiao Zong later joined the Malay-based, multiracial political party Keadilan helmed by Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

When Keadilan fielded its candidate in the Lunas by-election in Kedah two years ago, Dong Jiao Zong leaders participated in the campaign on the ground. They urged Chinese Malaysian voters to support the candidate who endorses the fight for Mandarin education.

Analysts later noted that Dong Jiao Zong's presence had contributed in swinging the pivotal Chinese vote from BN, which paved the way for a marginal yet significant opposition victory.

In subsequent by-elections, Jiao Zong vice-president Loot Ting Yee, a retired teacher and a much-respected veteran educationist, spoke against the Vision School project and the government's education policies at seminars organised by Keadilan.

It drew Dong Jiao Zong into public controversy again as some argue that non-governmental organisations should not be seen to be working with political parties. The political linkages somehow drove some supporters away.

This, Prof Khoo believes, is one of the reasons why Dong Jiao Zong's influence is on the decline.

"Many young parents send their children to Chinese primary school but they are generally not too politically inclined and some of them may feel that the struggle is not bringing any result. Even those who believe in the cause try to avoid problems with the government," he says.

However, Prof P Ramasamy of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's political science department, defends the movement's decision. "They know that education needs political solutions in this country and they will need a platform for that."

However, the days of Dong Jiao Zong being associated with political parties may already be numbered, simply because there are not many parties left to work with.

Dong Zong's Bock says after the organisation's previous experience with political parties, it has also become much warier on such collaboration.

"Politicians are more concerned about staying in power than anything else. We should not have too much hope in them, we should rely on ourselves and the community," he said.

Even so, the question remains: Would political parties leave Dong Jiao Zong out of the partisan picture?

This is the second part of a three-part series on Dong Jiao Zong. Part I appeared yesterday and the final part will appear tomorrow.

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