Rise in interest in Chinese high schools

Once considered a place for rejects, Chinese independent schools are now very popular. Enrolment this year was the highest and more than 2000 applicants in the urban areas were rejected.

THIS year, Chinese independent schools in Malaysia scored a number of firsts in their history. Many of these schools in urban areas saw a huge surge in the number of students sitting for the entrance exam, 13,500 were enrolled into the schools as of Jan 11, and 2,635 applicants were rejected.

While the number of new students continues to increase over the years, it is the first time that enrolment has crossed the 13,000 mark, and also the first time that a large number of students were turned away.

Thanks to the far-sightedness of their promoters and a combination of other factors, these fee-charging secondary schools have emerged as winners in the much sought after institutions for parents wanting to give their children the best in terms of good discipline and education.

Gone are the days in the 80s or even 90s when parents sent their children to these schools for sentimental reasons in support of Chinese education. Or worse, the children were sent to these schools because they had nowhere else to go to due to poor exam results.

Now it is the other way round. An applicant will need to have good results to enrol in these schools, especially those in urban areas. For sure, one needs to have either good UPSR results or pass an entrance exam to enrol in these schools.

According to the Chinese Sin Chew Daily, of the 2,635 applicants rejected, 1,400 were from the Klang valley and 830 from Johor.

The three prominent independent schools in Kuala Lumpur – Chong Hwa, Kuen Cheng and Tsun Jin – turned down 400 students respectively while Foon Yew in Johor and its branch school rejected 800.

Chong Hwa, which made the headlines when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak visited the school recently, held an entrance exam for 1,400 applicants but took in only 960. A student needs to have a total of 560 marks for seven subjects, an average of 80 for each subject, or score 4As and 3Bs in the UPSR to secure a place there.

Chinese independent schools are a by-product of the Education Act 1961 when the medium of instruction was changed to English and later to Bahasa Malaysia in the 70s, affecting more than 100 Chinese secondary schools.

A total of 78 Chinese secondary schools changed their medium of instruction to become a vernacular secondary school known as Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan (SMJK), which entitled them to financial allocation from the Government. The others opted to continue with Chinese education, remaining as independent schools without financial support from the Government. This resulted in a drastic drop in student enrolment then, and the viability of these independent schools, numbering 60, then came into question.

In the 70s, the Chinese community started a campaign to revive these schools. It began in Perak where a committee to develop Chinese independent schools was set up under Dong Zong, an umbrella of board of governors of the schools.

The working committee then set up divisions to draw up their own syllabus for text books and examinations, undertake training of teachers, and initiate career guidance and fund raising projects. They also worked on study loans and scholarships.

As a result, the student population began to rise over the years, especially after the 70s.

According to figures available, the total student population of Chinese independent schools was 28,318 in 1973, rising to 59,773 in 1994.

Since then, the student population has been maintained at about 50,000 for more than a decade. Last year, the number crossed the 60,000 mark.

Yearly enrolment remained at about 10,000 but it surged to 11,794 in 2007, 12,767 in 2008 and 12,824 last year. This year, the number hit 13,500 and there was no alternative but to turn down applicants.

Now, classes in some of the more popular schools are filled to the brim. Chong Hwa, for example, has classes with 60 students. This is a far cry from the early days when Chinese independent schools were deemed as a place for rejects.

The upbeat sentiment will continue in the years to come, according to the headmasters and teachers as well as those working in Dong Zong (United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia) as they believe that parents have come to realise that these independent schools are good places to educate their children.

“We ought to be good to remain competitive as we are charging schools fees while government schools, known as SMJK, are free,” said a staff of the Dong Zong, which oversees the 60 Chinese independent schools.

While each independent school has its own style and operating system, all their students will have to sit for the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) in either Chinese or English. Some of these schools also require their students to sit for PMR and SPM, for practical reasons.

For instance, it is compulsory for students of Chong Hwa and Kuen Cheng to sit for PMR and SPM, apart from the UEC exam under what is known as the double track system.

While teachers acknowledge that it may not be a perfect situation, in reality such a system allows students the option to enter local universities with SPM as well as institutes of higher learning overseas with the UEC.

Over the years, the UEC has gained recognition and it is widely accepted by universities overseas and private local universities.

Chow Siew Hong, deputy president of Dong Zong, noted with pride that the UEC is recognised by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and students with the UEC are taken in as first year students even without the STPM.

This is actually a strong incentive for parents who send their children to these schools, as the students can enter university after spending five years in secondary school instead of seven years via the STPM.

Yap Thian Song, first vice-principal of Chong Hwa, said one of the reasons why these schools are gaining popularity is the rising status of the Chinese language due to economic reasons. Another contributing factor is that parents are keen for their children to learn more about Confucianism.

Hwong Seng, principal of Chong Hwa, said some parents are disappointed with the deteriorating discipline in government schools while the independent schools continue to improve their facilities and academic achievement.

Of course, the other reason is the “Chinese bond” that exists in such schools.

Hwong, a retired principal of SMK Jit Sin in Bukit Mertajam, said the double track system actually trains students to face pressure and overcome them, making them more resilient.

“Students from these schools are very independent. They do not depend on any aid nor expect any,” said Hwong.

Are Chinese independent schools seen to not promote the 1Malaysia concept since the students are mainly Chinese?

Hwong, who is a former student of the Methodist Boys School in Penang, said his school makes an effort to introduce Malay and Indian culture to the students. “We have different races in the country but we teach our students to accept each other,’’ he said.

Columnists , Opinion