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upsr‘English schools’ demise started racial divide’ was the heading of a recent Malaysiakini article. It was apparently taken from an observation by panelist Yong Poh Kon of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers at a recent forum titled ‘Malaysian Education: Can we bring back the quality?’

There are two questions here:

1. Did racial polarisation begin with the demise of English medium schools as postulated by Yong?

2. Can we bring back quality to Malaysian education?

According to Yong, “English medium schools were among the most multiracial before they were abruptly phased out after the 1969 riots.” He went on to say, “The sad part is we had a multiracial schooling system but nowadays 94% of Malays are in national schools while 88% of Chinese are in Chinese schools.”

I am not sure about the figures quoted but Yong is correct to say that once upon a time (it seems so long ago), we had English-medium schools that were multiracial and multicultural. It was a time when children from different social backgrounds and from different races and religions studied together and grew up together.

There were principally three types of ‘English schools’ – government English schools like the Penang Free School, which were run by the government, Catholic mission schools like Convent Bukit Nanas, KL and Methodist (Protestant) mission schools like Anglo-Chinese School in Ipoh. There were no racial or religious barriers to entry. In fact many Malay children went to mission schools.

The success of these schools was not just the multiracial nature of their enrolment but also the broad and liberal education provided. Children from that era of Malaysian education had a liberal and tolerant worldview. The mission schools and even government schools taught fair play and gave us a set of universal values that were not centered on any culture or religion. We were taught what was fair or unfair. You had the ethics of hard work and principles of honesty and fair play drilled into you if not by the coaxing of the teachers, then by the cane.

There was no racial bias. We rose or fell on our individual merits be it in sports or studies. In the rough and tumble of their schooling, children worked out their differences and friendship was based on trust and shared interests; never on race or religion.

Polarised kids grow up to be polarised adults

The generation of “English school” kids grew up with a broad worldview – tolerant in the main, objective, meritocratic and not skewed by considerations of race or religion. Our heroes were never Malays, Chinese or Indians; they were just OUR heroes . . . the ones who scored the most goals in football or won the Thomas Cup or ran the fastest or sang the best. All this stood us well later in life. The fact is if we are racially polarised in school when we are most impressionable, we are likely to remain racially polarised as adults. This we can see in the difference between those who were brought up on the old “English school” system and those who came after – in the national school system.

Perhaps another reason for the ‘unity’ was that English was a ‘neutral’ language so to speak – it did not belong to any particular group. Parents sent their children to English schools because they thought they would get the best education. But this is only a minor influence if at all. The main reasons for the racial unity were common interests and common values not based on the religious principles of any particular community.

After Independence Malay increasingly became the focus and from 1970 Malay became the medium of instruction in all national schools. The government of the day thought that it was only proper that the national language be used in schools and English was more or less phased out.

There’s nothing wrong with using the national language as the medium of instruction in schools as such but then the government politicised education. In keeping with the Bumiputera policies, students were marked differently in the exams so that Malay children scored better or were passed for inferior work. Scholarships were given based on race, similarly entrance to higher institutions of learning. On top of that the children were taught a national history that was skewed to one viewpoint often ignoring historical facts.

Children are very impressionable and sensitive. The unequal (and in their eyes) unfair treatment they got acted as a wedge between those who got preferential treatment and those who did not. The Malay children were probably embarrassed that they were given high marks or passed when many knew they were unmerited. And those gifted Malay children were angry because their hard work and talent were not recognised as such.

The non-Malay children were probably angry too that their hard work did not get the reward they deserved. Nothing divides a family more than the unequal treatment given to the children by the parents. It’s the same with children in school.

So if “English schools” fostered racial unity, national schools did not. While there is not the intent to foster disunity I am sure, yet they did not provide an environment conducive to racial unity like what the “English schools” did. How can they when the children are taught a Malaysian history that is skewed to a particular viewpoint as if only one race mattered, only one race was responsible for getting independence from the British, only one race contributed to nation building and the others only played a peripheral role.

How can we have unity when one race is told they are the original inhabitants of the land even when they are not, and that all others are ‘pendatangs’?

Can we bring back quality to Malaysian education?

We most certainly can.

The University of Malaya was once a well-regarded institution. Malayan students (and even Malaysian students before the change in our education policy) were accepted by most universities in the world because of their English proficiency and also because these foreign universities had confidence in our education.

They know that a child with a string of distinctions had not been gifted it but through hard work. I can recall how difficult it was to even get one distinction and in the whole country, only a handful had several distinctions. That was before the government over the years dumbed down our exams and adopted what is essentially a two-tier marking system – a ‘them and us’ system. Entry to tertiary education is not based on merit or open competition but on strict quotas.

So disunity is not the only fallout of our present education system. The other is the falling standard. Year after year our standard drops. We do not measure up to the high standards of the better performers globally or even in our region. And those countries which were previously behind us have either caught up or surpassed us.

And when we changed totally to Malay medium, our students were even more unacceptable to overseas universities. The government realised the problem and introduced maths and science in English. This was a half-baked solution to the question of English proficiency – learning scientific and mathematical terminologies does not improve one’s English. It would have been better had we taught English as a subject (including English literature) so that the acquired English proficiency can be applied to any subject including science and maths.

But then that was a political decision – the Malay language chauvinists would never have countenanced a total change. Today even the teaching of science and maths has been reverted to Malay, a regressive step if ever there was one.

Let’s call a spade a spade. The Malay language, beautiful as it is, has limited currency. It is used by only a small fraction of the world population (Indonesia and Malaysia) and is not even the regional lingua franca which English is. It is not the language of commerce and nor the language of science and technology.

Ministers don’t practise what the government preaches

In an increasingly globalised economy we need English which, whether we like it or not, is the world’s lingua franca. It’s the language of science and technology and it is the language used when non-English speaking countries do business with each other.

At the end of the day we all need to ‘cari makan’ and if our education does not prepare us for it, it has failed us. Parents realise this and that’s why more and more parents or those who can afford it are sending their children to international schools where the curriculum is broad based and the medium of instruction English.

That is why for those who cannot afford the international schools, many including Malay parents have opted for Chinese schools because they perceive they will get a better education than from national schools. And with China as an economic power many hope they can at least work for companies that do business with China.

The fact that ministers send their children to international schools or abroad speak volumes about the education these same ministers are advocating for the rakyat.

Our bloated civil service is bursting at the seams and cannot absorb many more graduates from our universities, so the private sector has been asked to do its share in employing our graduates. The private sector operates on meritocracy, they demand high standards and often they insist on English language proficiency. Both are not provided by our national schools.

Instead of blaming private sector racial discrimination for not employing these graduates, the government should take a long hard look at what its education system has produced.

As the government has spent RM25 million on consultancy concerning education, I am sure there will be many suggestions on how to put quality back in our education. Whether it will use the expensive advice it paid for or let politics get in the way is left to be seen.

I can imagine the first line in the RM25 million report – “Stop politicising your education”. I could have told the government that free of charge.

The day we stop politicising our education is the day we start to bring back the quality we once had.