“ Our founding fathers have decided that integration is the best way forward. They didn't decide on assimilation”
YAB Dato' Seri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak (2012)
One of the most persistent allegations put out in the internet is that the vernacular schools (SRJK(C) and (T) are a main cause of national disunity and lack of integration in the country. Occasionally too, political leaders have engaged in vernacular school bashing although most leading politicians today realize that the constitutional provision relating to the existence of what are often referred to as “mother tongue” primary schools is unlikely to be revoked any time soon; and the political brownie points to be gained from agitating for the abolition of vernacular schools is more than negated by the controversy it will spark off.
On the other side, Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) have come in for their share of criticism as breeding grounds of racial, cultural and religious intolerance. Recent controversies involving the mistreatment of minority community primary students by schooling authorities have received much publicity. They have reinforced opinion among some non-Malay parents that the SK schools are subjected to a ketuanan Melayu and ketuanan Islam agenda which runs counter to the non-racial and integrated environments of these schools as depicted by its defenders.
What is the situation on the ground and what is the reality which policy makers and politicians have to deal with?
Here are some facts and figures on schooling trends in the country
• Of 2.9 million students enrolled in primary schools, 98% are in the public system and 2% in private schools. 75% of public schooled students are enrolled in SKs with Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction; 22% in SRJKCs with Chinese as the medium of instruction, and 3% in SRJKTs with Tamil as the medium of instruction. Government aided religious and special schools account for less than 1% of enrolment.
• Ethnic stratification in schools has increased. The proportion of Chinese students enrolled in SRJKCs has gone up from 92% in 2000 to 96% in 2011. Indians students enrolled in SRJKTs has also gone up from 47% to 56% during the same period. In SKs, 97% of students are Bumiputra.
• In recent years, SRJKCs have become more multi-racial in their student enrolment while SKs have become less multi-racial. 13% of SRJKC students are non-Chinese, mainly Bumiputra, and this proportion has been steadily increasing.
• UPSR achievement gap between SK and SRJKC is insignificant. There is a small achievement gap of about 4 percentage points between SRJKT and the other two streams.
• SRJKC and SRJK, although they teach in what has been referred to as the mother tongue language, have exactly the same curriculum content as the SKs.
• Despite enrolment in different schools, there is widespread operational proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) among students of all races with 75% of students achieving a minimum credit in the 2010 SPM examination. Hence if BM language proficiency is seen as an important tool of integration, there is little or no adverse impact of vernacular education schooling.
Why SRJKs Critics Are Wrong
Clearly, a racial or emotive approach to the issue which has little recognition of the actual situation on the ground and which is ignorant of pedagogical concerns and the constitutional provision on mother tongue language of instruction, is not helpful.
The assumption that vernacular education undermines national unity or integration can also be disputed.
Firstly, national unity is a nebulous concept meaning different things to different people. It is seen by all experts on the subject as being influenced by a complex cluster of factors, with schooling as only one of many.
Secondly, there is no empirical evidence that vernacular schools undermine national unity or integration, even if acceptable definitions can be agreed to. Neither is there evidence that Sks teaching in BM advance or play a role in national unity in any way superior to that of vernacular schools.
Thirdly, what evidence there is shows that interethnic interaction in so called integrated schools may in fact result in disunity and mistrust rather than help bring about unity and integration. A pioneering study conducted in 1968-69 in 34 secondary schools and covering more than 7000 student respondents found, unsurprisingly, that race-based affirmative action was responsible for interethnic mistrust in ethnically heterogenous schools where competition for educational mobility was most pronounced (see Bock, J. C. (1970). “Education and nation-building in Malaysia: A study of institutional effect in thirty-four secondary schools“. doctoral dissertation, School of Education, Stanford University).
Finally, it is important to note that research conducted by UNESCO and others shows that students learn best when taught initially in their mother tongue in preparation for a bilingual or multilingual education.
It has also been noted in the Malaysian Education Blueprint, 2013-2025, and elsewhere that the diversity of cultures and peoples that make up our population is fundamental to the Malaysian identity and a source of competitive advantage in today's increasingly globalized world.
Bottom Line Explaining Why SRJKs will Survive Well
What the anti-vernacular lobby does not comprehend, many ordinary folk in the country are fully aware of and indicating their preference by exercising their freedom of choice on the different streams of primary education. This is best illustrated by a recent visit to Melaka, my hometown.
Whilst at a neighbourhood pasar malam I bought some fried chicken from a Malay stall. The young man and his wife were very friendly and asked whether I was from the area. I, in turn, asked about his young kid who was helping spoon out the sambal. He said he had four children, all of them enrolled in SRJKC and tadika Cina. There was no expression of concern of segregation, national unity, dominance by vernacular-Bengs,or fear of losing their Malay/Islamic identity. The reasons he gave for enrolling them in the vernacular schools were sensible and logical - higher standards than sekolah kebangsaan and the importance of Mandarin for economic and social reasons.
From a livelihood and career advancement point of view, it looks like the vernacular-Beng's/Ali's/Ramasamy's could have the last laugh on those schooled in SKs. How many more kids proficient in Bahasa Malaysia and religious studies but lacking basic maths and science skills and extra linguistic skills can be absorbed by the civil service or even private sector?
This article first appeared in the on line publication, The Big Issue, Sept 1-15, No. 11.