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Rethinking Vernacular Schools


The issue with vernacular schools lies not in the schools themselves but in the misconception that they foster racial division and disharmony among Malaysians. (photo from Flickr)

MENTION the term vernacular schools at your local coffee shop, and suddenly the weight in the air is thicker than the condensed milk in your teh tarik

While not yet halfway into the year, vernacular schools have seen the headlines a few times. From an UMNO youth calling for its “review”, to judicial judgements and the bashing from an academic scholar.

For full disclosure, I am a product of a Chinese primary school who sat through the now-abolished Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR).

In my six years there, I have many fond memories with friends from all races. I was also a frequent participant in public speaking competitions across the English, Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin languages, and I recall my fiercest competitor was in fact, Malay.

Much of the argument against vernacular schools seems to be hinged on two arguments: exclusivity and a barrier to national unity. 

For all their faults (strict regimentation and rote learning), vernacular schools are at least publicly open for anyone to enrol.

The growing popularity of vernacular schools cannot be understated. The composition of non-Chinese students in these schools has risen from 11.84 percent in 2010 to 19.75 percent in 2020, according to data from the Education Ministry.

Deputy Education Minister Wong Kah Woh also revealed that in 2023, 17 percent of Chinese vernacular primary school students were Malays.

The point here is that national unity is a larger struggle, and cannot be reduced to a simplistic rhetoric that vernacular schools are evil.

I chanced upon a street interview video made by a local news portal, where Malay parents shared that they found no reason to believe their children were treated less favourably in a vernacular school.

A parent further shared that their children encountered fair competition when it came to academics and opportunities such as being a prefect. 

The civic education subject was helpful for me to understand the different cultures of my fellow Malaysians. I also recall various traditional celebrations that were given due recognition, sometimes through (much dreaded) crafts.

Rather than harp on the system, I am more interested in how we can transform civic education into more practical lessons that will last a lifetime.

Beyond these arguments, I believe the underlying issue which is more pressing and needs to be addressed urgently is the eroding trust in national schools.

Almost all parents in the aforementioned video provided identical reasons for sending their children to a vernacular school, namely stricter academic rigour, tougher discipline and better career opportunities. 

Earlier this year, the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) provided scathing comments that poor policy implementation, lack of accountability and the intrusion of politics into education contributed to the failure of the Malaysian education system.

A paper published by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in 2016 following the publication of the MEB also warned of deteriorating education quality in national schools which will likely turn Malaysians away.

If we wish to move away from the vernacular school system, we need to restore trust in national schools first. This can be done by tackling the areas for which vernacular schools are preferred over national ones.

Consultation with all relevant parties is a must. From that discussion, a revised civil studies curriculum should be recommended, detailing how language classes would be inducted into the education system. 

Schools should be allowed to allocate the same number of hours to Mandarin or Tamil classes as to Malay classes. National schools today allocate around two hours to other languages but around 8 hours to Malay and English, while Chinese vernacular schools have around ten hours of Mandarin classes per week. Moving away from vernacular schools requires a balance to be struck here.

Ultimately, it is not the ethnic composition or language prevalent in one's surroundings that influences one's perspective; it is more the values instilled at school and within the family environment. 

If our educational institutions promote mutual respect, appreciation for diverse backgrounds, and view cultural diversity as a strength, then undoubtedly our young generation will mature into inclusive and respectful Malaysians.

Hence, the issue with vernacular schools lies not in the schools themselves but in the misconception that they foster racial division and disharmony among Malaysians. 

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