SJKC reality: Challenging experience for non-chinese students at Chinese primary school?


  • Focus
  • Monday, 10 Jun 2024

(From left) S. Sathiswaran, Ang Ee Heng and Muhammad Hakimi Firdaus, all 12 years old, sharing a light moment with friends during recess at SJKC Kampung Baru Paroi. When the school's former headteacher Yee first arrived at the school, she noticed that the teachers there were under a lot of pressure but the pupils were all wearing happy smiles. — IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/The Star

IT CAN be quite frightening for non-Chinese pupils who step out of their comfort zone and struggle to adapt to life in Chinese schools.

Parents Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah says in addition to academic pressure, non-Chinese students also face pressure from their peers, especially when there are only one or two non-Chinese students in the class.

"Chinese schools are known for their strict discipline and rigorous (teaching) style. If pupils cannot keep up with their studies, not attentive in class, or fail to complete their homework, it may lead to disciplinary actions from teachers," she says.

Noor Azimah says the non-Chinese must work harder to learn speak and write Mandarin to avoid from being seen or feel alienated in classrooms.

"We often hear about success stories, but there are actually quite a few cases who fail," she says.

Noor Azimah: 'We often hear about success stories, but there are actually quite a few cases who fail.'Noor Azimah: 'We often hear about success stories, but there are actually quite a few cases who fail.'

Noor Azimah adds parents play a crucial role in facilitating their children's academic progress and teachers must also fulfil their duties to ensure that non-Chinese pupils in Chinese primary schools receive attention and assistance to overcome their fears.

Transfer as an option

Nevertheless, not every non-Chinese pupil can successfully complete the six-year education in Chinese primary schools, especially when the child's proficiency in Mandarin is not up to par and holding them back in their overall academic achievement. In this situation, parents can only resort to transfer their children to another school.

Rafizah Hussin has four daughters. Her 12-year-old twins, Nur Adelia Rania Mohd Faizal and Nur Adelina Rania, 10-year-old girl Nur Aqeela Deslisya were all enrolled in SJKC Chung Hua Klang.

However, due to the impact of the then Covid-19 pandemic, the twins, who had studied in the Chinese school for five years, still struggled to perform well in multiple language subjects. Consequently, they had to transfer to a national primary school in their Year Six.

"Their Malay language proficiency is not very good as well. We had no choice but to transfer them to a national primary school in their final year of primary education," says Rafizah.

Rafizah says the overall academic performance of the twins in the Chinese primary school was poor.

"Although they could read and converse in Mandarin, their writing skills were mediocre, leading to situations where even though they knew the answer during exams, they couldn't write it.

"The pressure of attending online classes was also immense for them, especially during the pandemic period (Year Three to Four), where subjects like history and science were taught in Chinese. I observed that the children couldn't absorb so much and couldn't understand what was being taught," she says.

In addition to helping the children with Bahasa Malaysia language homework at home, parents also had to arrange online one-on-one tuition for Chinese, mathematics and science; but the cost of tuition for the three children, including for Aqeela, became a huge financial burden for the family.

However, Rafizah does not regret sending her children to a Chinese school. Instead, she regretted that her children could not complete their six years there.

"So now we pay more attention to Aqeela's studies. She is currently in Year Four, and we hope she can continue to maintain good results in all subjects without having to transfer schools," she says.

Rafizah also plans to send their youngest daughter, a four-year-old to a Chinese primary school. Currently, she is enrolled at a Chinese pre-school in Kota Kemuning.

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Falling behind and lying flat

Will a pupil’s academic performance in primary school cast an impact in secondary school?

If non-Chinese students struggle in Chinese schools due to a weak command of the Chinese language and this affects their progress in other subjects, will they choose to "lie flat" (give up) after entering secondary school?

If non-Chinese students in Chinese schools have a weak command of Mandarin, will it affect their progress in other subjects? — IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/The StarIf non-Chinese students in Chinese schools have a weak command of Mandarin, will it affect their progress in other subjects? — IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/The Star

The United Chinese School Teachers Association (Jiao Zong) chairman Cheah Lek Aee points out that besides Bahasa Malaysia and English subjects, all subjects in Chinese primary schools are taught in Mandarin.

Therefore, he has advised non-Chinese parents that if they plan for their children to study in a Chinese primary school, the children must be able to understand and speak some basic Mandarin. Otherwise, it will be a disadvantage to the child.

"We do not discourage non-Chinese children from attending Chinese primary schools; we are only informing them of the real situation (and challenges).

"Teachers in Chinese primary schools teach in Mandarin from the first day of class. If children cannot understand or they do not have a foundation in Chinese language, they may fall behind by Year Two or Year Three," he says.

Cheah is even more concerned that non-Chinese pupils may end up in a situation where they are unable to catch up in other subject at the Chinese primary schools and they may also encounter certain difficulties when they transfer to national schools.

He explains that teachers generally use Mandarin throughout the teaching process to ensure the characteristics and essence of Chinese primary schools are maintained.

"If you always use Bahasa Malaysia to explain, non-Chinese pupils will be dependent on the explanation," he says.

However, he is confident that Chinese primary school teachers are diligent in teaching and will not neglect non-Chinese pupils who are falling behind in their studies, nor will they allow them to be left out in class.

Cheah is confident that Chinese primary school teachers are diligent in teaching and will not neglect non-Chinese pupils who are falling behind in their studies.Cheah is confident that Chinese primary school teachers are diligent in teaching and will not neglect non-Chinese pupils who are falling behind in their studies.

The proficiency level of non-Chinese students vary, with some weak in their academic performance while others are excellent, he notes.

Cheah has also seen non-Chinese pupils achieving excellent results, even scoring 7As in examinations.

Strong foundation vital

Are non-Chinese students who successfully graduate from Chinese primary schools able to master Mandarin?

According to Lei Kok Kien, the headmaster of SJKC Chung Hien in Sarikei, Sarawak, this might not always be the case.

Lei points out that some non-Chinese students manage to complete the six-year curriculum in Chinese primary schools but stop learning to master the language as it is too difficult for them.

As a result, they can only engage in simple conversation using Mandarin.

"At SJKC Chung Hien as an example, we have the students practice listening, speaking, reading and writing over and over again. They also need to hold presentations in class as much as possible," Lei says.

At SJKC Cheng Ming in Keningau, Sabah, over 90% of the student population also comprise indigenous children. — SJKC Cheng Ming FacebookAt SJKC Cheng Ming in Keningau, Sabah, over 90% of the student population also comprise indigenous children. — SJKC Cheng Ming Facebook

Some school transfers not due to failure

Lei says in suburban areas, a majority of non-Chinese students transfer schools due to relocation. And many chose to enrol to another Chinese schools.

"Non-Chinese pupils' willingness to accept Chinese education should make us proud. It signifies their acknowledgment of the importance of the language," Lei says.

Lei points out that in Sarawak, many indigenous people can speak Chinese and almost all indigenous employees in banks have a basic understanding of Chinese.

"Even though some homes are closer to national primary schools, some non-Chinese families still choose to send their children to Chinese primary schools because they recognise the advantages of learning Chinese," he says.

‘I Learn Mandarin’ programme to assist non-Chinese pupils

Do non-Chinese students enjoy learning in Chinse school?

Yee Chon Moi, former headmistress of SJKC Kampung Baru Paroi, Seremban says “Yes”.

Yee was transferred to the school of 250 pupils in Oct 2022, classified as a "Type A" school in a suburban area.

Upon her arrival, she noticed that the teachers at the Chinese primary school were under a lot of pressure, but the students were all wearing happy smiles.

Yee introduced the "I Learn Mandarin" programme for Year One to Year Three non-Chinese students with the help of her junior schoolmate, who heads a kindergarten and is researching on the learning of Chinese by non-Chinese.

They arranged the teaching materials and the students undergo three months of training free of charge, before taking examinations.

After several months of training, 80% of non-Chinese pupils were able to grasp the basics of Mandarin in the first phase.

Due to budget constraints, the school subsequently adjusted the mode of this programme by adding students to WhatsApp groups, where they shared learning materials and vocabulary, encouraging non-Chinese parents and children to learn together.

Non-Chinese students adjust well in secondary schools

After graduating from Chinese primary schools, non-Chinese students generally have three choices - entering national secondary schools, Chinese national-type secondary schools (SMJK), or independent Chinese secondary schools (IC). If their Chinese proficiency affects academic performance, they will eventually choose to enter national secondary schools.

However, if they perform well in Chinese primary schools and wish to continue studying Chinese, they may opt for Chinese secondary schools (SMJK) or Chinese independent schools.

Usually the non-Chinese pupils who chose to continue their studies at national secondary schools have no problem adapting to a predominantly Malay-language learning environment.

This report is part 2 of Media in Arms’ series ‘SJKC: Reality for Non-Chinese students’, which explores the experience of non-Chinese students in Chinese schools. Media in Arms is a media collaboration comprising five mainstream media outlets: Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Daily, Malay daily Sinar Harian, local news broadcaster Astro Awani, Tamil newspaper Malaysia Nanban and The Star – which formed this initiative in February 2022 to share resources and collaborate on diversified news content.

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