So you want to abolish vernacular schools because you want unity? (by Ooi Kok Hin)

Ooi Kok Hin is a research analyst in Penang Institute. He graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy, and is also the author of the book, “Aku Kafir, Kau Siapa” , published by DuBook Press.

Published @ The Malaysian Insider @  26 September 2015


Recently, I read two very discomforting pieces of news. One was that the government should stop accommodating non-Malays since “they are not voting for us anyway”. A certain mufti suggested that vernacular schools be closed down and that we should all have just one common type of school. He even had the cheek to bring up Singapore as an example of having only one type of school in which everyone can mingle and have no differences.
The other news was a full-page report stating that Public Service Department (JPA) scholarships should be entirely, 100%, be given to Bumiputeras.
Regarding the first matter, we have heard it long enough. Debates have been going back and forth about the need for national unity versus the liberty to choose one’s school.
I try not to take sides in this article, but if I could, I would want to show what it really means when we advocate one common school and close down the other schools in the name of national unity.
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.
Vernacular schools and MRSMs/SBPs/religious schools are two sides of the same coin. They are overwhelmingly homogeneous, create ethnic isolation and severely restrict our kids’ chances of being exposed to and interacting with other races in their critical coming-of-age period.
Their limited exposure to friends of another race (if they have any) is a sad outcome considering that their experience in schools tends to shape their character and world views in the future. Plus, racial propaganda and racial stereotypes function best when they are preached in isolation and not challenged with another view.
Have the elites forgotten that most of them do not send their own kids to national schools? Many of the well-educated Malays come from elite schools such as top MRSMs, SBPs and religious schools. In fact, I was shocked when I learned that my friends from MRSMs received English-medium education.
At MRSMs, students are taught Mathematics and Sciences mostly in English. English is “looked up” to at MRSMs and is seen as an uplifting skill. Definitely not as something to be looked down upon or taught at the expense of Bahasa Melayu/Bahasa Malaysia.
My first reaction was utter disbelief. At the time, certain warriors are rebuking those who supported the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) as unpatriotic and devaluing the national language, but here we have the intentional creation of elite schools which conduct their classes mostly in English to mostly Malay students.
My question is: do we agree that English-medium education is good? If yes, then why is the rest of the population deprived of this education? Why do only a selected few get to enjoy this privilege?
If the answer is no, then those elite schools should revert to the Malay language like the rest of us. Perhaps this is best summarised by Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim who said, “They say the Malays can’t do it but MRSM is proving that the Malays can do it. What is the rationale then for abolishing PPSMI?”
Also, does the existence and popularity of elite Malay schools show that a significant segment of the Malay population has given up on national schools too? Shouldn’t we be concentrating all our resources and our brightest teachers on national schools instead of providing the best for elite schools?
Perhaps “closing down” is not a suitable choice of words. “Opening up” is better. We are not going to close down all the schools because it would be such a waste to do so.
Since we already have facilities and teaching staff, we should just open up these schools to all Malaysians. Convert them into national schools (in name) and open them up for everybody (in practice). For a first step, it’s as simple as that.
The suggestion of opening up the elite Malay schools can be easily misconstrued as challenging their special rights, but can’t we talk about the elephant in the room? If we want unity, everyone must give up the selfish exclusivity that we cling to. The non-Malays ought not to regard vernacular schools as belonging to the Chinese or Indian community. Rather, they belong to all Malaysians.
On that same vein, the Malays ought no longer to regard the elite Malay schools as exclusively theirs.
This includes the MRSMs, SBPs and perhaps even the religious schools. Why not? A non-Malay or non-Muslim can study Islam as well. An attempt to achieve understanding doesn’t necessarily entail that we have to agree or believe.
Many of the world’s scholars on Islam are non-Muslims who in turn introduced the religion to their non-Muslim crowd (Ira Lapidus, Karen Armstrong etc).
Why stop there if we truly desire national unity? Why don’t we open up the matriculation colleges and the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) campuses? UiTM is the largest public university in Malaysia. According to the university profile on its website, UiTM has “12 state campuses, 6 satellite campuses in Shah Alam, 11 state satellite campuses and 21 affiliated colleges.
“With this vast network and a workforce of 17,770, the university offers more than 500 academic programmes in a conducive and vibrant environment. It is also home to some 175,200 students”.
Of course, this will not be achieved anytime soon because we are all too attached to our narrow interests. We just don’t trust each other. We don’t trust that the other is willing to make the sacrifice. The Malays will keep the elite schools and UiTMs as “theirs”, and the non-Malays will keep the vernacular schools and, um, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) as “ours”.
So if you are unwilling to do what you yourself propose, let’s stop this hypocrisy. Speaking of which, Tai Zee Kin wrote an intriguing post on Facebook a few days ago. He quite rightly asked the following:
“When Republican candidate [Ben] Carson publicly said that Muslims should not be allowed to become the president of the United States of America, I took it as being absolutely distasteful and I disagree with that.
“Then, I saw many of my Muslim Malaysian friends quickly jumped into the ‘condemning’ bandwagon denouncing Carson’s stand.
“My question to these Muslim friends: are you then, prepared to allow non-Muslim Malaysians to become the prime minister of Malaysia?
“Some would say yes, but most would say no. So where comes the moral high ground for you to disagree with Carson’s stand? The feeling Carson’s speech gave you is exactly the feelings of non-Muslim Malaysians all this while, only that we have came to terms with it after 58 years.
“So are you willing to take the leap of faith and prepare yourself to be led by a non-Muslim PM in Malaysia?”
What is the implication of the MRSM/SBP/religious school examples and Tai’s quote? Both show that we are not practising what we preach. We demand that others do things which we are not willing to do ourselves.
Hypocrisy is an understatement because we lack this kind of discourse to the point that we are not even conscious of what we are saying and what it entails.
With regards to the media report that JPA scholarships should be 100% allocated to Bumiputeras – dude, we already have such scholarships. It’s called Mara scholarships.
If you take away JPA scholarships, which really are the only scholarships that most non-Bumiputeras can hope to receive (the other scholarships have very limited slots, numbering up to a dozen. JPA and Mara give thousands of scholarships every year) – if you want to take that hope away from us as well, you might as well migrate to somewhere that is not Malaysia.
Malaysia is a shared nation and belongs to all who call it home. I fear where we are going as a nation with the increasingly explicit racialisation of everything.
God knows if a day will arrive when someone justifies an act of killing under the name of Islam or Article 153. We must speak out and stop this madness before it’s too late. – September 26, 2015.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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