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Umno vice president Hishammuddin Hussein is anticipating that the motion on vernacular schools will be the hottest topic at his party’s general assembly to be held next fortnight (Nov 25-29).

The call to abolish vernacular schools, termed Sekolah Rendah Jenis Kebangsaan – SRJK (C) for those using Mandarin as medium of instruction and SRJK (T) for those using Tamil – is expected to dominate the debate by Umno delegates.

Among the SRJK vocal critics are Umno’s Cheras division chief Syed Ali Alhabshee and Petaling Jaya Utara deputy division chief Mohamad Azli Mohemed Saad.

Urging their abolishment, Syed Ali said vernacular schools are seen as the platform for fostering thick racial sentiments. He was reported by FMT on Oct 7 as saying that such a negative development could bring about division and discord between the youth of various races in the country.

Syed Ali is an advocate of single-stream education where all primary schools must teach in the national language, Bahasa Melayu, in the Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK).

Meanwhile, Mohamad Azli was quoted by the NST in its Oct 5 article ‘Umno assembly should discuss position of Chinese schools’ as calling upon the annual convention at the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) to discuss whether multi-streaming should be maintained.

“Many are of the opinion that Chinese vernacular schools have been exploited by opposition parties to incite hatred towards other races, and spread racial and anti-government sentiments,” he said.’

It is against this backdrop of the above allegations and a predicted-to-be explosive Umno meeting that the Nov 11 forum titled ‘Should there be one stream of schooling in Malaysia?’ was jointly organised by Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia with the LLG, Tamil Foundation, Ikram, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH), Aliran and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST).

Presenting the vernacular school viewpoint

Held yesterday evening at the LLG Cultural Development Centre in Kuala Lumpur, the forum sought to bring the debate into neutral and open ground. (The eponymous LLG centre is named after Chinese educationist Lim Lian Geok).

Among the forum speakers was Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) director Dr Lim Teck Ghee.

In his presentation, Dr Lim said that while government policy on multi-stream education has remained unchanged, certain Malay nationalist groups as well as a few Umno leaders were still continuing with their campaign of agitation aimed at closing down vernacular schools.

Dr Lim described some of these people as being professional agitators who were bent on creating racial strife and attempting to cast the SRJKs as a scapegoat for the country’s race relations crisis.

According to him, the academicians and professionals who were supporting these agitational groups were either ignorant or “apple polishers” seeking to curry favour with the political masters.

Racial discrimination is most divisive factor

There is no empirical evidence to show that vernacular schools undermine national unity, Dr Lim noted. Neither can it be proved that the currently almost mono-ethnic national schools advanced racial integration in any way superior to the role played by vernacular schools.

What evidence there is, Dr Lim explained, indicated that ethnic heterogenous interaction in the so-called “integrated schools” had resulted in disunity and mistrust rather than help bring about unity and integration.

Highlighting a study conducted in 1968-69, he said the poll taken of 7,000 students had found race-based affirmative action to be the factor most responsible for creating inter-ethnic mistrust among the respondents.

The survey had covered 34 secondary schools with mixed student population. Aside from their multiracial enrolment, the schools surveyed were also those where competition for educational mobility was most pronounced.

Dr Lim expressed his belief that the finding is likely to be confirmed by a new study if one were to be done today. He suggested that it is overall government policies on race and religion in the socioeconomic and cultural areas that should be examined and blamed for the deterioration in national unity and integration.

SRJKs included in National Education Blueprint

Observing how SRJKs are increasingly the school of choice for many non-Chinese parents, Dr Lim pointed out that data from the National Education Blueprint revealed Chinese schools to have at present a more multiracial enrolment compared with SKs.

“Most Malaysians are aware that the diversity of school systems is an advantage in our increasingly globalised world and competitive economy,” he opined.

The blueprint, which is the country’s education roadmap for the next dozen years up to 2025, has reiterated that the diversity of cultures and peoples is fundamental to Malaysian identity. It additionally reaffirms the conventional philosophy that students learn best when taught in their mother tongue through their formative years.

The way forward

In his concluding remarks, Dr Lim called on Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to provide a White Paper in support of his own recent statement in Parliament that the government has been fair in its allocation to the different schooling streams.

Dr Lim said this reassurance is necessary due to widespread public perception that the SRJKs continue to be discriminated against and treated as “stepchildren” by the government and the Ministry of Education.

Full disclosure of funding allocation, school-building policy, school and class enrolment size and other pertinent issues, he added, would help put to rest the pervasive concern. Otherwise non-Malays might consider SRJKs to be the convenient political football that is kicked around whenever the Malay power centre is under duress.