[lg policy] Malaysia: A more intergrated education system needed

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jun 8 11:25:10 EDT 2018

 A more intergrated education system needed
Posted on 8 June 2018 - 08:15am

*Natalie Shobana Ambrose *
Print <http://www.thesundaily.my/print/553611>

*MANY* of the mindset challenges that Malaysia is facing today is the doing
of a segregated education system.

This education system has contributed to distrust and allowed intentional
cultural isolation to be deeply rooted in the psyche of the rakyat not as a
collective whole but distrust based on ethnic, religious, cultural and
linguistic identity among each other.

I can already feel the brickbats coming my way with these two statements.

I do, however, think a segregated education system is an important issue of
a wider web of concerns regarding our national education system that needs
to be discussed.

A country's education system either builds or destroys a nation, and we
know this all too well. When the position for education minister was
recently announced, many Malaysians had an opinion and voiced their
approval and concerns openly. This is something that has not happened for
the longest time but it proved how important our country's education system
is in shaping not just the individual but Malaysian society. It also proved
that Malaysians are very aware that our education system is extremely
complex and in need of an overhaul but this needs open discussion and
political will. It feels like there might be political will right now but
open discussions about difficult issues may not be so easy still.

For a long time the education system has used ethnicity, language, religion
to put people in lanes starting from a very young age. In the name of
multiculturalism, the education system was created to accommodated the
needs of the different ethnic groups by setting up vernacular schools and
now we have a host of different kinds of schools: from the Malay medium,
Chinese medium and Tamil medium national schools to homeschooling,
religious schools, private schools and the like. On paper this is a very
amenable method of accommodating the needs of a multicultural society.
However, in practice this system has perpetuated segregation, cultural
isolation and contributed to the polarisation not just in universities and
civil service but also in society. How do I know this?

Let's just look at how students in local public universities interact.
Lecturers will tell you that even in a multicultural classroom, students
gravitate to their own ethnic groups. You might say that this is a personal
preference and what makes them comfortable. But if someone has been
socialised to have close interactions only with people who speak the same
language or who belong to the same ethnic or religious group, then how easy
or natural would it be to make deep connections with people who have
different beliefs and belong to a different ethnic group?

This has been going on for years and it shows how polarised the country
really is. National schools today have an extremely polarised student
population not just ethnically but also divided by social class and
economic status. Those who can afford it send their kids to private
schools, so what happens to our national schools?

You might find a growing number of non-ethnic Chinese students in a
Chinese-medium school, but you will also find a very lopsided number of
Malay children in national schools and only Indian children in Tamil
schools. So when at a young age, a child is only interacting closely with
one ethnic group of people, it becomes more difficult to interact with
people of different groups because there is little access. But it also
creates distrust, which is apparent in the way we as a society function.

A polarised education system creates many problems. We are experiencing
that now when this week's discussions and fear mongering surrounding the
capability of the nominated candidate for attorney-general are more about
his race, religion and mastery of the national language instead of his
track record and capability. It also happened when the education minister
was announced.

There are two glaring needs from these episodes. The first is the need to
teach the Federal Constitution in schools. And the second is to inculcate a
Malaysian camaraderie in the young. There has to come a time when we start
saying I trust him or her not because he or she shares my religious beliefs
or is of the same ethnic composition but because they are Malaysian.

If we go back to what we might want of the education system, I assume that
what we all want is access to quality education. Besides providing
knowledge and critical thinking skills, the education system and learning
environment should inculcate values and create unity. For me, equal access
to quality education should not be a class privilege or an ethnic
entitlement. It should be a Malaysian right not for the sole betterment of
just the individual or group but for the country as a whole.

So if we were to look at our education system with this lens, then maybe we
might be able to have the difficult discussions in creating a forward
thinking education system. In order to do so, we need to first look at our
language policy.

Our linguistic landscape is complex but as clique as it sounds, I believe
language breaks barriers and creates trust. So instead of having so many
mediums of instruction, everyone should master the national language. You
live in this country and it is a privilege that we have to be able to speak
a language unique to us as Malaysians. Teach mother tongues as a compulsory
subject in national schools. Bring the children together not by bringing
different vernacular streams into one school where students are still
separated but implement a single integrated stream of education where
students master not only the national language and English but also their
mother tongue.

Now this seems like a lot of languages to learn and we kind of tried
teaching Maths and Science in English but that didn't last long. So why
bother? Whether we like it or not, English is the language of every field
of study from science to information technology to diplomacy, law and
accounting. In order to be internationally competitive, we need to be able
to access information, communicate effectively and present our ideas and
research in English. This is something we cannot shy away from.

So, in order to implement an integrated school system, first we need to
rebuild the brand of national schools. In the past, national schools were
an adequate option but nowadays national schools cannot hold their own
against private schools. Chinese- medium schools have a stellar reputation
and exude confidence in the quality of education provided but their budgets
and resources are also very different.

A national school education should be synonymous with quality. All national
schools have to start functioning like the few vision schools peppered
around the country. This means providing good teachers, resources and
support. Only then will parents have the confidence to enrol their children
in national schools. This is just a snippet of what an integrated school
system might look like.

If the desire for a unified new Malaysia is genuine, then these are the
kinds of difficult conversations that need to be had now to see if we
Malaysians can actually function like the inclusive new Malaysia claim to


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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