Malaysia: Good showing raises Tamil school stock

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jul 17 13:50:20 UTC 2007

New Sunday Times,
April 29, 2007

Good showing raises Tamil school stock
By: CHOK SUAT LING <sling at>

More Indian students from educated and middle-income families are making
Tamil schools their choice, educationists tell CHOK SUAT LING

HE owns a successful business, and drives a sleek, eye-catching, black
Volvo. R. Ravindran could certainly afford to enrol his two children in a
private school. But he sent them instead to a Tamil school in Kajang. Asked
why he chose vernacular education, Ravindran shrugs: "Many Indian parents
now are doing the same. Most of my children's classmates are from urban,
educated, middle-income backgrounds. "Indian parents want their children to
learn their mother tongue and be educated in schools that are sensitive to
their needs." Ravindran enrolled his older son in a national school for two
years but transferred him out when he was 10 years old. "The boy was
uncomfortable with a few things, like the doa during the morning assembly."

Historically linked to the Indian labour sector, the 523 Tamil schools in
Malaysia today are widely perceived to have low student enrolment, and to be
populated by those from lower-income backgrounds. That observation is
apparently no longer accurate. Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil Jalan Bangsar
headmaster A. Janarthana notes that there has been a gradual increase in the
number of students from "more affluent" backgrounds in his school over the
past 10 years. "These are the students from families with a monthly income
of more than RM3,000. Their parents are educated and professionals like
lawyers and doctors, or from the business world. There has been a 10 per
cent increase of such students from last year, but it is still not as much
as we want." Tamil schools appear to be gaining popularity. There are now
schools in urban areas with between 1,000 and 2,000 students, an unheard of
phenomenon in past decades.  The Tamil Foundation Malaysia (TFM), a
non-profit organisation set up in 1990 to help Indian students through
education, has the statistics. TFM executive director Jiwi Kathaiah says in
2005, Tamil school enrolment numbered 98,579, but this year, there are
already more than 100,000 students.

There are several factors driving Indian parents towards Tamil schools.
Among them are academic excellence, cultural familiarity and belonging, and
exposure to their mother tongue. Kathaiah, who is also Tamil school
educated, notes that despite the odds, the academic performance of students
in Tamil schools has improved. "Numerous studies and research favour mother
tongue education," says Kathaiah.  "According to Unesco (United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), students taught to read
in their mother tongue acquire academic learning skills more quickly."

According to Education Ministry statistics, the percentage of passes for all
subjects in the Primary School Assessment Test, or UPSR, among Tamil school
students, has improved over the years. For Mathematics, only 67 per cent
passed in 1998, but that went up to 84.4 per cent in 2004. The most
impressive gain was in Bahasa Malaysia (writing), from 32 per cent in 1998
to 56.3 per cent in 2004. The number of high achievers has also gone up
significantly. In 1999, 45 students scored the maximum 7As. Last year, 570
achieved that feat. Kathaiah says this proves that the Tamil school system
is no longer the "weakest link in the academic system", as it was once
described. There are difficulties adjusting to the national school system at
the secondary level but Tamil schools have taken steps to cushion the
initial language and culture shock experienced by students. Many schools
organise motivational sessions for Year Six pupils who have completed their

Another reason why more Indian parents are turning to Tamil schools is the
perceived Islamisation of national schools.
Janarthana observes that Indian students can identify better with the values
imparted in Tamil schools, as they are the same as those at home: "When they
are comfortable with their environment, they feel liberated and can study
Yayasan Strategik Sosial executive director Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria
notes a sociological trend among fourth or fifth generation migrant
communities to return to their roots "It is a global phenomenon with no
adverse effects," Jayasooria says. The fact that Science and Mathematics is
now taught in English is another pull factor.  "Indian parents feel their
children can get the best of everything in Tamil schools — they have Tamil
language as a subject, besides Bahasa Melayu and English, and both Science
and Mathematics is in English. "And on top of it, they are in an environment
which adheres to their culture, ethos, history and identity," he adds. The
Education Ministry is aware of the increase in enrolment in Tamil schools.

"We have statistics of the rise in student numbers. But it is not viewed as
a threat to national schools. It will not in any way affect our drive to
make national schools the school of choice," says an official. He points out
that the ministry has taken many steps to make national schools more
attractive, including offering Tamil and Chinese language on a wider scale
in national schools soon. TFM president Manoharan Marimuthu agrees Tamil
schools are neither a threat to national schools nor work against national
integration. "The two education streams actually complement the other. As
for racial polarisation, the gulf among the races now is not a product of
the vernacular school system. There are other factors at play.

"In fact, the existence of a parallel system which supports another language
and culture is testament of our country's unique diversity," says Manoharan.
The government should, therefore, recognise the progress made in the Tamil
school system and respect and support it, he argues, and Tamil schools
should not continue to be treated like "stepchildren".
"While the support of parents has helped uplift some schools, many remain in
a sad state of neglect." Jayasooria agrees it is important to recognise the
strength of Tamil schools, and fill in the gaps where there are weaknesses
to ensure a level playing field. He, too, insists there is no conclusive
evidence to show that vernacular schools contribute towards problematic
ethnic relations. In fact, he says: "Immediate steps should be taken to
convert all partially-assisted Tamil schools into fully government-aided
ones."  Another strategy to improve the condition of Tamil schools is to
encourage parents from middle and upper socio-economic levels to send their
children to Tamil schools in force, then demand and ensure that proper
facilities are provided.

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk N. Siva
Subramaniam points out that one Tamil school, SJK (Tamil) Simpang Lima,
Klang, has been named a cluster school: "Parents should send their children
there and to other Tamil schools." Jayasooria is confident this will
happen.  "The people's consciousness of their identity has increased. And
this should be recognised as a positive development, not a problem."


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