Electoral politics in multi-ethnic societies sometimes undermines the quest for national unity.
We are witnessing that in Malaysia now. As the battle for votes in the coming General Election intensifies, the major competitors for power are going all out to project themselves as the champion of this or that ethnic constituency. This is obvious in their approach to
While Chinese primary education is integral to the national school system, the push for secondary education in the Chinese language beyond what is provided for, at present, has become more pronounced. The clamour for an independent Chinese language secondary
school in Kuantan is part of this. Political parties in the Opposition and in the Government are now in the forefront of this demand. If the limit upon independent Chinese secondary schools --- there are 61 now --- is set aside, it is quite conceivable that the number would increase dramatically in a short while. Would this lead to the emergence of a complete Chinese secondary school system that would parallel the national secondary school system in Bahasa Malaysia? The implications of such a possibility should be understood within the context of the Government’s recent recognition of most universities in China.
If a Chinese Malaysian can pursue his entire education in Chinese, from primary to university level, how much exposure would he have to Malaysian students and teachers from other communities? How would this affect his attitude towards, and outlook on, the other? What would be his notion of a Malaysian identity?
It is not just the silo that an exclusive Chinese education would create that is a challenge to us all. Many urban Malay parents are now opting for Islamic religious education at primary and secondary school level for their children. With the proliferation of Islamic universities and colleges in the country, they could choose to continue their tertiary education in a largely mono ethnic, mono-religious environment. Needless to say, this will also have a negative impact upon inter- ethnic, inter-religious ties in the future.
There are other current developments that will also impact upon the national school. The Government has made it easier for Malaysians to enrol in private schools which ipso facto will be patronised by those from the upper echelons of society. Thus, a class division which is already entrenched will be further exacerbated. A handful of Malaysians want the authorities to allow for English medium education, without much concern for what it will do to a school system that is already dichotomised in so many other ways.
It appears from all this that there isn’t that much commitment to the national school. Has the national school become the ‘step-child’ of our education system?
Since the Malaysian Constitution recognises Malay as the national language, it follows logically that the national school with Malay as the main medium of instruction should be the pivot of our education system. The Razak Report of 1956, the only comprehensive education report that the nation has had, acknowledges this. It is emphatic about the role of the national school as the channel for promoting national unity.
It is not widely appreciated that the Malay language had for hundreds of years served as the lingua franca--- the language that facilitated communication among diverse ethnic communities--- of a vast region that is today described as the Malay world. It created a sense of cultural unity and forged an identity--- the Malay identity--- that transcended ethnicity, making the Malays one of the most cosmopolitan people on earth. In contemporary times, Malay, as Bahasa Indonesia, has also helped to develop a national identity out of tremendous ethnic diversity in Indonesia. Malay can play that role in Malaysia too, if the national school becomes truly national.
To become national, the Bahasa Malaysia based school has to emerge as the school of first choice for all Malaysians. Its quality has to improve significantly. Bahasa Malaysia, English and other languages should be taught well. This also applies to other core subjects such as Mathematics, Science and History. Parents will also be impressed by the school if student discipline is strictly enforced within a caring environment.
Competent, dedicated teachers would be the essential pre-requisite for such a school system. They should not just impart knowledge and skills but also try to mould the young under their charge into honest and trustworthy human beings. Teachers should treat all students, regardless of their backgrounds, with fairness and a sense of justice.
The national school teaching community should be much more multi-ethnic and multi- religious than what it is today. More non-Malays and non-Muslims should be appointed as School Heads and Senior Assistants. At district, state and national levels, the education office or department should reflect the multi-ethnic composition of the nation. Qualified Dayaks and Kadazans should be given administrative roles outside Sarawak and Sabah.
What this means is that within the three component elements of the education system --- administrators, teachers and students --- ability should be recognised and rewarded. It is only when the education system is perceived to be promoting ability and excellence that parents will have the confidence to send their children to the national school. At the same time, the national school should extend a helping hand to the disadvantaged student, irrespective of cultural or religious affiliation.
In a nutshell, there has to be a total transformation of the national school. The Ministry of Education, I am sure, is working towards this goal. It is a transformation which will have to be carried out in tandem with other fundamental changes to the education system as a whole.
For a start, let us try to reduce the impact of electoral politics upon education and national unity.