Racial And Social Polarisation Through Schools (Extended Version)

Posted on September 28, 2015


I still remember vividly a story told to me by a state assemblyperson of an encounter she had when she was campaigning during the last General Election.

She was doing a walkabout and came up to a Muslim religious school’s gate and a young student of around 7 years of age gave her a knowing look.

Thinking that it must be because he recognized her from the banners hung around town, she approached to greet him. To her utter shock and disbelief, he looked coldly into her eyes and called her “Babi” (pig). She is a Malaysian of Chinese descent and the boy was Malay.

Remembering that incident still sends the chills down my spine. Where have we gone wrong? What have we done to our children? Are we breeding racists to destroy this nation?

two_kidsNo one is born a racist. You have to be nurtured and conditioned to hate another person based on the colour of their skin. But studies have shown that children do become aware of differences in race from as early as 3 years old and if such awareness are reinforced, either positively or negatively, at home or at school, they become part of the values of that person.

There can be little doubt that racist worldviews are passed along to children via their parents and the environment these children are placed in. Apart from the home, schools are where most children spends their time during their formative years.

If we are to effectively deal with racism, we have to look at our school environment today.

According to Preliminary Report of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 “the proportion of Chinese students enrolled in National Type (Chinese) Schools increased from 92% in 2000 to 96% in 2011. The shift for Indian students was even more dramatic, showing an increase from 47% to 56% enrolment in National Type (Tamil) School. As such, 90% of students in National Schools are now ethnically Malay.”kids_waving_flags

In other words, our school environment has become more racially polarised compared to the 1970s where the English-medium National Schools were the school of choice for most Malaysians.

In the recent red shirts rally by pro-government Malay rights groups, one of the demands made was to abolish Chinese National Type Primary schools. The Mufti of Perak, Tan Sri Dr Haji Harussani bin Haji Zakaria, later elaborated on this demand, that vernacular schools must be abolished and that there should only be one Malay-medium National Type school in order to foster national unity.

This argument sounds reasonable and logical in the light of increasing inter-racial tension. The problem with such demands from these supremacists is that it is motivated by their desire to dominate and oppress the minorities.

If we consider the other demands of these red shirts like “Don’t challenge the Malay, this is Tanah Melayu” and “Others are just migrants, guests and squatters, don’t test our patience, we have our limits”, then it is clear that the call to abolish vernacular schools is not motivated by a desire for unity but for forced integration. If you want to remain in Tanah Melayu, you have to become Melayu.

Columnist Ooi Kok Hin wrote, “If we are sincere about fostering a common type of school for all Malaysian kids, we are not only talking about closing down vernacular schools. We should also be closing down all the Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSMs), Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (SBPs) and religious schools.”

It is probably true that such mono-ethnic and mono-religious alternatives to the Malay-medium National Type school does little to foster unity among our diverse communities. Children growing up in such environments have little or no appreciation of other cultures.

drawing_flagBut we have to ask ourselves why have we moved away from integration to polarisation in the last four decades?

Some would say it’s the language. Since the move from English as the main medium of instruction in National schools to the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, parents have taken their children out and enrolled them into vernacular and religious schools. But that in itself is a contradiction. If the use of Bahasa Malaysia is the issue, why then place our children in Chinese or Tamil schools?

Others may say it’s the increasing Islamisation of the Malay-medium National schools that is causing the flight of non-Muslims students. Again, that cannot be true as the Christian mission schools in the past had been the schools of choice of non-Christians, even among Malay-Muslim families.

The sad truth perhaps is the declining standard of public education in this country through the National Type schools. Politicians made politically expedient decisions to lower the standard of learning over the years and parents have voted with their feet to take their children out.

You see, parents care not what language you use or which religious groups are behind the school as long as you are able to deliver world-class education to their children, they will enrol in any school that can better prepare their children for the future as long as they can afford it. Nobody is going to risk their children’s future on ridiculous claims of some politicians or the unfulfilled promises of an educational blueprint.

The tragic outcome of the failure of our National school system over the decades is not just the polarisation of the races but also of the social classes. The ‘haves’ sends their children for costly private and international or even overseas education while the ‘have-nots’ are stuck in the mediocrity of public education. Granted that there are exceptional National Type schools but these are the exceptions.

After more than fifty years of nation-building, we have drifted further apart as a people, both ethnically and socially. Instead of becoming more Malaysian, we have become more Melayu, more Indian, more Chinese and less tolerant of each other.  

The gap between the rich and poor are becoming wider as the ruling and business class can afford to pay for quality education and thereby continue to rule over the rest who are unable to break out of their socio-economic situation.

How can we reverse the racial and socio-economic polarisation of our community?

We can certainly attempt it by forcing integration through the abolishment of all alternatives to the Malay-medium National schools. Apart from the expected immediate political fallout from such a move, we must also be prepared for the eventual economic fallout through the irreversible exodus of our best and brightest to other countries. The outcome would be nothing less than catastrophic for our country.

Affordable world-class education is a basic human right and it must be available to all our children in Malaysia, regardless of race, religion or even citizenship through our public school system.3orang_asli_kids

It will take great political will and honesty from our Government ministers to admit that all is not well with our public education system, and to reverse it by raising the standards. Only then can we expect to attract back the Chinese, the Indians and even the elite Malay ruling class. Only then can we bring Malaysians together from young to know each other, to understand and appreciate each other’s unique culture and to eventual respect one another.

Until then what we have now are vernacular schools, religious schools, MRSBs, SBPs and International/Private schools. Due to their emphasis, they tend to be mainly homogenous ethnically, religiously or socio-economically. But perhaps it is time that they begin to consciously become more Malaysian.

For example, Chinese vernacular schools could begin to teach more subjects in Bahasa Malaysia or even English, without lowering their standard or losing their Chinese focus. This would open up such schools to children from other ethnic groups. As it is now, the Chinese-medium schools are already more diverse than the Malay-medium National schools with 13 percent non-Chinese enrolment nationwide.

There are no easy solutions to healing the racial and social fractures in our nation. A good place to start would be from our schools where young minds are shaped and values formed.

An abridged version of this article was first published on my weekly column at The Malaysian Insider.