Non-Chinese multilingual mavericks from Chinese schools are highly sought-after

United through language: Nur Inas (second from right) with her former classmates. — Sin Chew Daily/Media in Arms

PETALING JAYA: When she speaks Mandarin, it’s easy to mistake Nur Inas Muhammad Adam for a Chinese.

The Chong Hwa Kuantan graduate does not only speak Mandarin with a Chinese accent, but also scored an A- in Chinese for her SPM examination last year, in which she bagged 7As.

With her overall performance – she also excelled in extracurricular activities – it is no wonder that Nur Inas was selected as the High School Model Student of 2023.

As the only child in her family who was left to learn Chinese, the 19-year-old deliberated long and hard before applying for a place at an independent school.

“I had thought of transferring to a national school many times. I couldn’t even speak Mandarin before Year Three in primary school, but luckily, I improved after Year Four,” she candidly shared, adding that her two younger brothers had opted to transfer out to a religious school and a national school respectively, because they couldn’t keep up with their studies in Mandarin.

“The educational path I chose required a lot of sacrifice and support from my family,” said Nur Inas, who also attributed her persistence to the support of her friends and dedicated primary school teachers, who helped lay a solid foundation for her Chinese proficiency.

Due to the demanding school environment and rigorous learning culture in Chinese primary schools, non-Chinese students studying in independent Chinese secondary schools may face challenges.

According to statistics provided by the United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong) to Sin Chew Daily, the total number of non-Chinese students in independent schools nationwide is 1,636. Sabah has the highest number of non-Chinese students at Chinese high schools.

The teaching philosophy of Chinese independent schools that stresses three languages – Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and English – can help students gain an advantage, said Dong Zong chairman Tan Tai Kim.

“Other than holistic development in all aspects, non-Chinese students who graduate from Chinese independent schools are more marketable because they have mastered an additional language. They also have various options for further studies, including in China, Taiwan and Singapore.”

The benefits of being multilingual are vast, concurred Prof Dr Juliana Othman, a professor of language education in the education faculty of Universiti Malaya.

Studies show it enhances cognitive skills like memory, problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as decision-making and multitasking abilities, she said.

“Socially, it allows for greater empathy and intercultural understanding. In today’s globalised world, multilingualism is valuable, opening doors to educational and professional opportunities.”

Knowing Mandarin has definitely given Loqa Kumaran from Negri Sembilan a competitive edge at work.

“My parents sent me to a Chinese kindergarten because it was nearby. And I went to a Chinese primary school because I wanted to be different from my older siblings, who went to a national school and a Tamil primary school. I never thought that 90% of my work later would be in Mandarin,” said Loqa, who had graduated from Chung Hua High School in Seremban.

Similarly, ASP Hamizan Ismail, 35, who completed his secondary school education at SMJK Nan Hwa in Sitiawan, Perak, said knowing Chinese has helped him in his career as a police officer, as the force needs officers who can speak several languages.

“I think the main reason I passed my interview to be a police inspector was that I knew Mandarin and various Chinese dialects, such as Fuzhou, Cantonese and Hokkien.”

See Sunday Star for more on the academic and job prospects of non-Chinese students at Chinese schools. This is part 5 of Media in Arms’ special report series ‘SJKC: Reality for Non-Chinese pupils’, which explores the experience of non-Chinese pupils 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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