Malaysia: Taking politics out of education

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Dec 7 18:28:52 UTC 2008

ROGER TAN: Taking politics out of education

If the English language is the main medium of instruction in our
schools, no one can claim that it is the mother tongue of any race in
this country. JERLUN member of parliament Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir's
suggestion that the government creates a single school system in the
country is not new.  Not surprisingly, his statement drew protests
from non-Malay politicians and educationists. Such reaction is
expected because since independence, educational issues in this
country have always been and sadly looked at from the political rather
than the educational point of view.

In fact, the first call to have one educational system based solely on
the Malay medium of instruction was made by the British administrators
before independence in the 1951 Report of the Committee on Malay
Education, Federation of Malaya, or better known as the Barnes Report.
The Barnes Report 1951 recommended this: "Chinese and Indians are
being asked to give up gradually their own vernacular schools, and to
send their children to schools where Malay is the only Oriental
language taught. In principle, we recommend the end of the separate
vernacular schools for several racial communities and the replacement
by a single type of primary school common to all."

Then came the Abdul Razak Report which was released on May 6, 1956.
The 1956 Report recommended that "the ultimate objective of education
policy in this country must be to bring together children of all races
under a national education system in which the national language is
the main medium of instruction". Both the Barnes Report 1951 and the
Abdul Razak Report 1956 were met with strong protests from various
ethnic communities, particularly with the proposal of "the ultimate

As a result, this proposal was dropped and the 1956 Report recommended
to establish "a national system of education acceptable to the people
of the federation as a whole which will satisfy the needs to promote
their cultural, social, economic and political development as a
nation, having regard to the intention of making Malay the national
language of the country while preserving and sustaining the growth of
the language and culture of other communities living in the country".

The same words were incorporated in their entirety into Section 3 of
the Education Ordinance 1957 which came into force on June 15, 1957
just as we were about to achieve our Independence. Hence, the
vernacular schools were saved and non-Malay educationists had argued
that section 3 therefore represented the original social contract of
the communities. However, when Sarawakian Abdul Rahman Talib (now Tun)
became the education minister, he decided to review the education
policy as declared before Merdeka in Section 3 of the 1957 Ordinance.

The Rahman Talib Report 1960 reintroduced the "ultimate objective" for
the sake of national unity. Section 3 was accordingly amended to read:
"The education policy of the federation is to establish a national
system of education which will satisfy the needs to promote the
cultural, social, economic and political development as a nation, with
the intention of making the Malay language the national language of
the country."

On Jan 1, 1962, the new Education Act 1961 also came into force. With
this, Chinese schools which did not convert to national-type (Chinese)
secondary schools became the Chinese independent high schools which
continue to use the Chinese language as the main medium of instruction
without any financial aid from the government.

The 1961 Education Act also contained an infamous Section 21(2) which
empowered the minister to convert any national-type (Chinese and
Tamil) primary school to a national primary school.

Today, the law relating to education in this country is governed by
the Education Act 1996.

There is no provision similar to Section 21(2) of the 1961 Act in the
1996 Act, and the non-Malay communities had much to thank the then
education minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Section 17 of the 1996 Act now provides that the national language
shall be the main medium of instruction in all educational
institutions except for a national-type school or any other
educational institution exempted by the minister of education.

There are still some who have argued that without any amendment to
Section 17, the switch to teaching Mathematics and Science in English
in 2002 has infringed it.

Be that as it may, I feel our education policy requires an overhaul to
address racial polarisation among our young today.

Where our children have their primary and secondary school education
is nowadays so predictable according to their race.

In the days before the medium of instruction switched from English to
Bahasa Malaysia in national schools, the majority of non-Malay
parents, especially the Chinese, would send their children to national
(English) schools.

As a result, there are Chinese children like me who would grow up not
being able to read or write much Mandarin.

Today, the Chinese in this country can best be categorised as those
who are English-educated and Chinese-educated.

The manner in which they were educated when they were young would show
up later in the way they looked at certain issues and approached a
particular problem.

This is evident today in the rivalry between the two groups in
Chinese-based political parties.

In fact, not all Chinese were in favour of an English education in the 1960s.

I remember that when my father sent us to English schools (in those
days they called it tak ang moh chek in Hokkien), he was advised
against it by his relatives who said we would grow up embracing
Western values and mores, discarding Chinese ones like filial piety.

They were wrong.

Though I may not read or write much in Chinese, I do speak some
Mandarin and the Chinese Foochow dialect.

My primary school education in English has not made me feel any less
Chinese or fail to love my parents any less than a Chinese-educated

However, for those who study in national-type Chinese primary schools,
the majority still opt for the national secondary school, probably
because education is free and in order to enter local universities.
But the sad part is, every year there are thousands of drop-outs among
the Chinese students simply because they are not able to cope with the
change in the medium of instruction from Chinese to English in the
1960s and 1970s and thereafter to Bahasa Malaysia.

Many ended up as labourers, farmers, plumbers, mechanics, VCD pedlars
and unskilled workers.

In this sense, while it may be well and good to preserve one's mother
tongue, it remains a social issue whether the current system is in
fact in the interests of non-Malay students with such a high drop-out
rate among them?

This is a serious problem affecting especially the Chinese in rural
areas and those in lower-income groups.

As a temporary teacher in a rural Chinese independent high school for
six months before I left to read law in England, it saddened me to see
close to 90 per cent of my students drop out after their Senior Middle
Three education.

Only a handful managed to further their studies in Taiwan after having
sat for the Chinese Unified Examination.

Of course, the students also registered to sit for Sijil Rendah
Pelajaran and Sijil Pelajaran Menengah examinations but many did not
do well.

Today, the future of the students in Chinese independent high schools
is perhaps brighter as the Unified Examination Certificate is now
recognised by Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman and many foreign
universities in Singapore, Australia, Britain and the United States.

In fact, the English taught in Chinese independent high schools is
even more advanced than the syllabus taught in national secondary
schools. But sadly, the standard of the English language among our
students is still not good enough according to international

Having associated with many secondary school students in youth
activities, my observation is that our secondary school students today
may find it difficult even to answer the English language paper in the
Singapore Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE).

In this respect, we have much to learn from Singapore and its
education system is perhaps one of the best in the world.

The Singapore government abolished vernacular schools and the Nanyang
University long ago.

The main medium of instruction in all its schools is now English. But
every child is required to take up a mother tongue language, be it
Malay, Chinese or Tamil as a second language.

Most of them will be promoted to express stream in secondary schools
where they will sit for the GCE "O" Levels at Secondary 4 which is
equivalent to our Form 4.

Starting from next year, a secondary school student has an option to
learn a third language. Hence, a Malaysian Chinese who studies in
Singapore will end up being trilingual -- in English, Malay and

All in all, the ultimate objective is that Singaporeans of all races
get to mix together right from the pre-school stage to their tertiary

Here, most of our children only get to mix with other races when they
converge in national secondary schools.

The problem is compounded with the rise of religious fervour in
national secondary schools.

I fear if our national secondary schools are not run based on a
secular concept, one day more Chinese will opt for the Chinese
independent high schools because they are producing more competitive

This will only worsen racial polarisation among our young people.

In fact, racial polarisation was particularly bad when Datuk Seri
Anwar Ibrahim was education minister.

He not only required all schools to call Bahasa Malaysia as Bahasa
Melayu, but also sent Malay administrators to national-type primary

The non-Malays should not, therefore, be blamed if they regard Bahasa
Malaysia as the mother tongue of the Malays.

We should, therefore, seriously look at the Singapore model.

Of course, not everything is good about Singapore but it cannot be
denied that its education system is top class.

Had the Singapore government governed along racial lines and made the
Chinese language as the main medium of instruction in its schools,
Singapore Chinese today would not have been more competitive than the
Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China due to a poor grasp of the
English language.

If English language is the main medium of instruction in our schools,
no one can claim that it is the mother tongue of any race in this
country because it is the international language.

But we can stipulate a requirement akin to those days when we had
English schools whereby students must have at least a credit in Bahasa
Malaysia before they can be promoted to Form Six or secure a place in
public universities.

Our children must also be required to study their mother tongue in
addition to Bahasa Malaysia at the primary and secondary levels.

To those who say that having the English language as the main medium
of instruction will threaten national unity, I will say that we
actually obtained our independence because of the joint efforts of a
united group of English-educated elites.

If this is possible, I am confident more non-Malay and even Malay
parents will send their children to national English schools.

Then the issue of abolishing the vernacular schools will not arise
because more non-Malays will be attracted to study in English schools.

For this to materialise, this change must be built into the
Constitution so that future leaders will not change our education
system whenever they like by just amending the Education Act; thereby
causing another generation of Malaysians to suffer.

The writer, a senior lawyer, was a temporary Chinese Independent High
School teacher and part-time law lecturer of the Tunku Abdul Rahman
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