Tamil schools share some of the success stories as they mark the bicentenary of Tamil education in the country.
ON Oct 21 1816 in a small classroom at Penang Free School, a tiny group of students attended the first formal Tamil language class in Malaysia.
In 1897, the first Tamil vernacular school – SJK(T) Jawa Lane – was built in Seremban, Negri Sembilan.
Fast forward to 2016 and you have 100,000 pupils being taught by 10,000 teachers in 524 Tamil vernacular schools throughout the country.
This does not even include the national schools which conduct Pupil’s Own Language (POL) classes.
Tamil schools have been making a name for themselves in the sciences and mathematics, especially over the past two years.
Just last month, three Tamil schools bagged the gold, silver and bronze medals at an inventors’ competition in Indonesia.
SJK(T) Ladang Buloh Akar from Perak won a gold medal and a Special Award at the International Young Inventors Award 2016 in Surabaya, Indonesia.Selangor’s SJK(T) Kajang picked up a silver medal while SJK(T) Mentakab, Pahang, came home with a bronze.
Deputy Education Minister Datuk P Kamalanathan says: “We have created a lot of success stories as far as Tamil education is concerned.”
“We have developed so much that today, the syllabus used in all Tamil schools is truly created by Malaysian teachers,” he says, adding that Malaysia came up with its own syllabus in 1956.
Way back then, Malaysia “imported” the syllabus, pedagogy and teachers from Tamil Nadu, India.
Now, he says, we’re “exporting” our Tamil language syllabus and content all the way to Europe.
He explains that Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Education Ministry in Switzerland in March.
“The entire module and syllabus for UPSI’s Bachelor in Education (Tamil Language) is being used by the Swiss to teach the first degree for teachers teaching Tamil language in Switzerland.”
“If you look around the world, I must say that Malaysia is at the forefront of Tamil language development and this is because the Government has provided the facilities, support and encouraged the continuous development of the language and the schools in this country,” he adds.
“Even Unesco has recommended that a child’s early education is best taught in their mother tongue,” he says.
Proof of the Government’s commitment in developing Tamil schools can be seen in the latest Budget 2017 announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak last Friday.
Najib, who is also Finance Minister, said that RM50mil has been allocated for the improvement and maintenance of Tamil schools and another RM10mil for pre-school development.
Kamalanathan says that a new Tamil vernacular school is currently being built in Klang while the construction of another two are expected to start before the year end in Johor and Kedah.
All these schools will be equipped with the latest technological infrastructure to ensure the students study in the best learning environment.
Although the government has played a role in developing these schools, they would definitely not be where they are today if it was not for the help provided by the public.
Brickfields Asia College Education Group managing director and EduNation founder Raja Singham Sukumara Singham says that Tamil schools can continue to be stars in fields of science and mathematics if given the necessary support by both the government and, more crucially, the community.
Hence, in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of Tamil language education in Malaysia, EduNation launched its free online content in Tamil for primary school students.
“We have an idea of providing accessible education to everyone,” he says.
Content that covers the entire Malaysian school syllabus is also available in Malay, English and Mandarin.
This way, Raja Singham says, all schools will have access to quality content online, so long as they have the infrastructure to support it.
“While there are a lot of debates about vernacular schools and the need for vernacular schools, we cannot deny that Tamil schools fulfil a very important role,” he adds.
A pre-independence school
What was once a single-storey school buried deep within the Ladang Edinburgh rubber estate is now one of the country’s high performance schools.
SJK (T) Ladang Edinburgh, Kepong, currently sits at Band Two and ranks 3,176 out of the 7,721 primary schools nationwide.
Although its next door neighbour is a national primary school, parents prefer to send their children to this small Tamil vernacular school.
The school’s headmistress Theresa Ayyakannu, says this is because of the school’s reputation as a top Tamil school.
The school was built in 1954 with a student population of 29. Today, there are 320 students spread out through its 10 classrooms.
There is also a preschool located within its compound.
The school’s student body is steadily growing and Ayyakannu says they have applied to open more classrooms so that they can stop turning away students.
She also says that there have been some quarters that wanted to change the school’s name to SJK (T) Taman Bukit Maluri to match the names of the national primary and secondary school next door.
“But our school’s management board were adamant that we keep our name. It is our heritage,” she points out.
“We will continue to honour and bring glory to the SJK (T) Ladang Edinburgh name.”
In order to make the school shine, the teachers also encourage their studentss to take part in international examinations and competitions.
Ayyakannu says that this year, they have represented Malaysia in the Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiad held in Singapore.
“We have also introduced a new game to the school which is normally played by children in Chinese schools - speed stacking,” she says.
She explains that this game involves stacking cups quickly in a certain formation and a pupil from the school competed in a competition for it recently.
“We were the first and only Tamil school to compete in that competition.
“Although she didn’t win, it’s already good that she was brave enough to try,” she says.
Last year, the school was also chosen as one of the pilot schools to implement 21st century teaching methods in its classrooms.
And this year, they are set to be the first Tamil school to have the FROG Classroom which is used for e-learning.
Ayakannu believes the perception that “Tamil schools are low-class” is also dying.
“Parents nowadays have a different mentality and believe that Tamil schools are better for primary education,” she adds.
She says this is because it is compulsory for pupils to learn an extra language.
All subjects except for Bahasa Melayu and English language are taught in Tamil.
Everyone is included
SJK (T) Jalan Fletcher, Kuala Lumpur, is the first Tamil vernacular school to carry out the Special Education Integrated Programme (PPKI).
Launched in 2006, the programme now has 28 students in four classes.
They are all in one classroom that has been partitioned into four spaces though as the school does not have enough classes and teachers to accommodate the students.
SJK (T) Jalan Fletcher headmistress Lourdemary Soosay says that the students in the programme have autism, dyslexia and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“The students learn the national syllabus but we emphasise more on life skills as this is more important than academic achievements,” she says.
Activities include planting and harvesting their own produce.
“They grow plants like chillies, brinjal and cucumber,” says Soosay, adding that they also have a mushroom house.
All the produce are sold by the school to the public including parents, teachers and those who run nearby grocery shops.
There is even a stall just outside their classroom where the children are allowed to practise being a “hands-on” businessman.
“We teach them how to calculate the change and how to interact with the customers.
Although it is a Tamil school with an Indian student body, the PPKI programme has children of Malay heritage as well.
Soosay notes that the children tend to have a certain attachment to teachers of the same race.
This, she says, is because they can communicate easily with the teachers who speak the same mother tongue.
“Learning is already difficult for them so when they can talk easily with their teachers, it helps,” she says, adding that lessons are usually conducted in Malay.
The value of knowing one’s mother tongue is also the reason vernacular schools will remain in Malaysia, according to Soosay. “Tamil schools have a good reputation thanks to its success in the sciences,” she adds.