While institutions down south had always stayed clear of trouble, recent confrontations among interest groups hint that some undercurrent is definitely present.
UNTIL recently, Chinese education in Johor Baru (JB) was as solid as a rock. Its foundation had been laid by respected community leaders led by the late Tan Sri Kuek Ho Yao, with strong support from the Kuok Foundation and huge donations by the late philanthropist Datuk Seow Wan Heong.
In the past, while many Chinese independent schools in other states were either plagued by the shortage of funds or management disputes, Foon Yew High School in Johor Baru had stayed clear from these troubles. Its school management headed by the no-nonsense Kuek had been too powerful to be questioned or rocked.
And while the New Era College in Kajang, Selangor, was reeling from the forced departure of its first president and social activist Dr Kua Kia Soong – which had led to the acrimonious spat between him and the New Era board led by Dr Yap Sin Tian, Southern College was celebrating down south after gaining the coveted “university” status awarded by the Education Ministry in 2012.
Up north, New Era – now trapped in continuing tension between previous and new leaders in Chinese education group Dong Zong – is still struggling to attract more students, with little or no hope of changing its name to “university college”.
But recent confrontations seen in Foon Yew and Southern University College – the two best-known Chinese institutions in Johor Baru – indicate there are undercurrents seeking changes in Chinese education in this vibrant southern city.
In the past, dissenting voices could be silenced by the founders heading the management boards but it is apparent that such “good old times” are being swept off by new tides.
Indeed, the disputes this month in Johor Baru have caught the attention of the Chinese mainly because nationwide, the community has poured in hundreds of millions to support Foon Yew High School – Malaysia’s biggest Chinese independent secondary school – and Southern University College, the first local Chinese college to attain university status.
Many believe that Chinese schools in other states are also facing similar potentially explosive situations but dissidents have chosen to stay accommodative for various reasons.
Foon Yew’s financial management has come under public scrutiny after its local and overseas alumni associations openly objected to a plan by the school board to spend RM20mil to construct a 12-storey building.
Taking up half a page in advertising space in the Chinese media on Jan 13, six alumni groups of Foon Yew stated that the management board should not spend RM20mil on a new building on its main campus as existing structures can cater for future needs.
“But the more important reason for our objection is: Funds raised from public donations should be utilised in a better manner,” said the advertisement.
Among the alternative proposals made by the alumni groups were improving the environment of its second campus in Kulai and teachers’ salary, welfare and teaching quality to benefit future generations.
Indeed, Foon Yew – established in 1913 – is the only Chinese independent high school with two campuses: the main one in Stulang Laut facing the Straits of Johor, the other in Kulai. While there are over 6,000 students in the main campus, there are over 3,000 in Kulai.
It is now applying to set up a third campus in Seri Alam to cater for the rise in demand.
A prestigious school, Foon Yew is renowned for its robust extracurricular activities, excellent study environment, experienced and devoted teachers, and outstanding academic achievements.
In its reply on Jan 16, also via an advertisement in the Chinese media, Foon Yew’s board of management said it was “unkind and unfair” for the alumni to insinuate that resources had been improperly utilised.
It argued that the building plan was the best solution to solve existing congestion. It added that the dream of Foon Yew is to conduct single-session classes for students, to replace current morning and afternoon sessions, and this new building would add many more classrooms to fulfil this dream.
Just before the Foon Yew dispute went public, Southern College University was already shaken by an “expose” media interview given by Prof Dr Ho Khai Leong, who dropped a bombshell by criticising Southern’s management and alleging that it “cannot score a pass” as a university.
The bitter Dr Ho, whose employment contract as vice-president with Southern was not renewed in 2016, called for the removal of Southern’s long-serving president Dr Thock Kiah Wah.
Leaving Southern at the same time with Dr Ho was the dean of business and management faculty.
The vocal Dr Ho, in his early 60s, is not an unfamiliar face to the community.
Before he went to the United States to pursue a doctorate degree, he had worked for the Selangor Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
When he returned, he worked as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University for 20 years.
As an academic in Southern, he was also a well-known commentator on social and political issues.
Dr Thock, the man under severe attack, did not respond to The Star’s questions. He was a reporter with Sin Chew Jit Poh and Chinese AsiaWeek before he pursued his doctorate studies in Taiwan. He joined Southern after his return.
However, Dr Ho’s allegations were denied and refuted by Southern’s management board. The latter also stated it would slap a defamation suit against Dr Ho.
Though not all is quiet in Southern, the student union in Southern demanded that the management board conduct an independent investigation into Dr Ho’s various allegations.
Southern University College was previously known as Southern College. Established in 1990, it aimed at providing a local education channel for Chinese high school graduates who could not further their studies in foreign countries.
To the Chinese community, it is sad that the tension down south emerged so soon after Dong Zong’s long acrimonious leadership tussle that ended with a violence-marred EGM last August.
This would have irked the late Kuek, who had been the chairman of the Foon Yew board for decades and was a founder of Southern.
But the Chinese community in Johor now lacks someone of Kuek’s stature and standing.
It is clear that the problems surrounding these two institutions dear to the Chinese will not go away soon as the issues raised have not been convincingly resolved.
In fact, tension in the management of Chinese schools has always been there.
While many school heads and professionals in the alumni loathe to work with some powerful and dictatorial board members who seemingly know little about education, they have to accept the reality that Chinese schools need the influence of the rich and powerful during fund raising.
Generally, there is no funding from the Government for the country’s 61 independent Chinese schools, except during the general election.
The Foon Yew episode has underscored another longstanding issue of concern – far too much money raised from the public has been spent on physical structures rather than software in Chinese schools.
Indeed, many Chinese high schools stand tall with impressive architecture. But behind this façade is the annual arduous task of fund raising campaigns that involve not only the alumni, but school heads, teachers, students and parents.
But compared to the Dong Zong leadership crisis, Chinese educationists in Johor Baru have shown they are more circumspect in verbal exchanges and have exercised restraint in demeanour.
There is no drama akin to the Dong Zong crisis – at least for the moment.