Human Writes: Let’s consider bilingual education

The idea of dividing us by race so young just doesn’t feel right. It feels archaic in Malaysia Baru. Photo: The Star

One of the most contentious local issues (aside from the usual suspects of race and religion) is education. I’ve wanted to write on this issue for a while; now, in this era of nation-building for Malaysia Baru, it seems especially pertinent.

Education touches a raw nerve in this country. It is bitterly divisive, a political flashpoint that has sparked protests, as in 1987, and a perennial election issue. It runs deep as a concern of parents, who may scrimp and save to pay for tuition or an overseas education.

A key contention in education, aside from perpetual issues of quality (which is another subject itself), is having a monolingual national system vs a mix that includes vernacular schools.

The vernacular school supporters are adamant about preserving their mother tongue and culture and their long-standing education system. Chinese schools date back 200 years. Some boast high standards today.

On the other side, supporters of a single national school system say this is the norm for most countries (all our neighbours) and the way to build unity. They believe vernacular schools segregate the races and demote the standing of the national language. Actually, I’ve had friends from Chinese schools tell me that frankly.

Certainly vernacular schools – and the rising number of private English-language international schools – can lead to poor Malay, which doesn’t help nation-building.

Honestly speaking, the idea of dividing us by race so young just doesn’t feel right. It feels archaic in Malaysia Baru. Segregation at the school level cannot be the way forward to foster unity.

Before you shoot me down, hear me out. I also don’t dismiss the value of vernacular schools. And I think a single monolingual national system doesn’t work for us. We’re too diverse a nation. We’re not like Thailand where the vast majority grow up speaking Thai.

Instead of an either-or scenario, why not aim for bilingual education? One language should be Malay, while the other could be Chinese, English, Tamil, Dusun or Kadazan (or any other if appropriate).

The programme should be truly bilingual, and take a suitable approach. We’ve seen enough failures from bad administration. The “Vision Schools”, for example, faced deep distrust among Chinese education groups, who feared it was an attempt to assimilate Chinese schools.

The fact is, bilingual education is the future; it is growing worldwide. Here are some successful examples:

In the Netherlands, bilingual education (Tweetalig Onderwijs) has grown significantly since the 1990s. In bilingual primary schools, children from four years old are taught in English for 30% to 50% of the day. In the 120 bilingual secondary schools (which make up a fifth of all secondary schools), half the subjects are taught in English. No wonder the Dutch speak such good English. There are also Dutch-German bilingual schools. All children still take the Dutch school-leaving exams.

In Vienna, Austria, the significant number of English-speaking migrants (from India, Africa, England, the Philippines etc.) led to some creative thinking among local education authorities. They came up with the Vienna Bilingual Schools Programme, in which classes are taught in both German and English, with a teacher for each language, to an equal mix of native speakers. The success of the programme has made it very competitive for local Viennese.

Australia has a few bilingual schools. At the Richmond West primary school in Melbourne, children spend two days a week in total immersion in Mandarin. By the time they finish primary school, they read, write and speak fluently in Mandarin.

In Scandinavia, the system isn’t truly bilingual, but they start young, which is key. Languages are best learnt young, ideally in kindergarten. That’s why we need bilingual kindergartens!

We should roll out a bilingual programme with a small pilot project run by creative and passionate educators in a willing school. If a good Mandarin teacher is brought to a national school with a real intent for bilingualism, this may draw Chinese students and reverse declining enrolment there.

Given our diversity, there would be no one-size-fits-all. What might work in Klang may be illogical in Kelantan or Sarawak. But in the long run, the vision would be multiracial and multilingual schools across the country.

Although this may seem far off, consider this. We are already moving to “mixed” language schools. Enrolment of non-Chinese students into Chinese schools rose by 20% between 2010 and 2014. Non-Chinese students made up 18% of total enrolment in Chinese primary schools in 2016, according to Education Department statistics.

One 2016 study by the National Education Advisory Council even asserted, somewhat controversially, that in 10 years, Chinese schools could turn into mainstream schools.

Our education system needs reform so it serves people and the nation better. We should try to find a model that works, and look upon the languages of this country as a resource, not a problem. We should be proud of our pluralities, and work with them, not work against them.

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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