Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced recently that the Government aims to make national schools “the school of choice” as part of a move to ensure quality education and enhance racial integration. Towards this end, the Government will have to study the operations of the vernacular schools for their good points as well as weaknesses, writes SUHAINI AZNAM, who takes an in-depth look at the national-type Chinese and Tamil schools.
YOUTHS are moulded in infancy so the recent call for integration starting from primary schools is perfectly logical.
Malaysian children attend one of two types of schools: national schools or national-type schools. Some 1,284 Chinese schools exist today, with a student population of more than 600,000.
According to the chairman of the United Chinese School Committees' Association of Selangor and Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, Dr Yap Sin Tian, some 90% of Chinese parents send their children to Chinese schools.
But within the last decade, a growing number of Malay, and some Indian, parents too have opted for the Chinese schools.
Non-Chinese pupils, including from the ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak, account for about 10% of the Chinese school population.
But the appointment of more Chinese and Indian senior staff members at national schools will not in itself solve the problem of integration.
It would almost certainly create Chinese and Indian enclaves as parents flock to send their children to Pupils Own Language (POL) classes in these “sympathetic” schools.
At implementation level, good intentions could dilute the very creation of a mixed environment for young Malaysians to grow in.
Chinese primary schools are an emotional issue with parents, tied to mother tongue and identification with the greater Chinese world.
Years later, their children are very grateful that they did.
For the Chinese, the reasons for sending their offspring to Chinese schools are two-pronged.
First, it makes economic sense.
With China’s star rising, Chinese parents want their children to join the growing legion of “world citizens.”
The other reason is more sentimental: parents do not want their children to lose touch with the Chinese culture and language, their roots and their very identity.
This is particularly true of urban parents who did not themselves have the benefit of Chinese schooling.
Most Chinese schools are well funded, with parents and alumni continuously responding to requests for donations, apart from the schools renting out their premises for weddings and other functions.
Discipline and hard work are synonymous with Chinese schools. Homework is abundant.
In addition, the Chinese language is ideal for learning Science and especially Mathematics.
And the children graduate trilingual, having learnt Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia and English. And what of the graduates? The students who attend Chinese schools speak very highly of their teachers and their lessons.
The situation in Tamil schools is vastly different. Poorly funded estate schools struggle to survive and government funding is a must.
Many Tamil schools lack proper buildings and infrastructure.
Dwindling student populations, discipline problems, shortage of teachers and a lower economic and social standing put the children at a disadvantage.
There are 526 Tamil primary schools in Malaysia, two-thirds of them in rural areas.
Yet 79% of the country’s Indian population are urban.
“Parents from poor-income families, of low social standing, are forced to send their children to Tamil schools because of the help (they get) with free textbooks,” said National Union of Tamil School Teachers of Malaysia president Shahul Hamid Mydin Shah.
“In national schools, they would have to buy lots of workbooks,” he added.
“Children from broken families, urban slums and rural estates won’t be able to compete with other kids.”
The economic viability of schools is a major issue. Fifteen is the minimum enrolment required for a school to stay in existence.
In one school in Ladang Sungai Papan, Kota Tinggi, only two pupils were left struggling with lessons.
When schools have had to merge, parents are forced to bus their children a considerable distance to the nearest town.
“I think schools with low enrolment, say 50 pupils or so, should relocate to Indian-populated areas,” said Shahul Hamid.
Teachers are another problem.
Of the 6,000 teachers currently attached to Tamil schools, 970 are temporary teachers.
Pupils from Tamil schools must transfer to national schools at secondary level.
As with Chinese schools, those who obtain a minimum C pass in the two Bahasa Malaysia papers in the UPSR examination go straight to Form One.
Those who do not have to attend one year in Remove Class, which provides the remedial teaching necessary for absorption into the mainstream education.
Like their Chinese counterparts, “teachers at Tamil schools are very dedicated,” said Shahul Hamid.
“Despite their poor backgrounds, more than 350 Tamil schoolchildren out of the 12,000 sitting for the UPSR scored 7As in 2003.
“Some 40% passed all subjects.”
The 87,000 pupils attending Tamil primary schools seem to have the odds stacked against them.
Yet 30% of Indian students in university are products of Tamil schools. And the graduates are very proud of their additional language skills.
“Studying Tamil as a medium of instruction is so different from learning it as a single subject as in Pupils Own Language class,” said S. Tamilselvi, the senior assistant of student affairs at SJK (T) Vivekananda in Brickfields.
“You learn to value it better, the poetry and beauty of the language.”
At Vivekananda, one of the better-known schools, teachers voluntarily provide extra classes for upper primary school pupils thrice weekly for free.
The MIC fights hard to keep Tamil schools alive on its agenda.
A decade ago, a few leaders had privately conceded that its eventual abolition might be the best solution for Indian youths, opening the doors to the kind of jobs that would put them on an equal footing.
Today, this view is no longer relevant. Indian parents, including professionals, are sending their children to Tamil schools for the literary grounding in their own culture.
With so much attachment to the Chinese and Tamil schools, there are concerns about the implementation of Abdullah’s noble intentions.
“The Prime Minister’s proposal is most welcome but we are faced with the reality now that national schools have developed a more Malay culture, including the headmasters and teachers,” said Dr Denison Jayasooria, executive director of the MIC’s think-tank, Yayasan Strategik Sosial.
After 30 years of Malay dominance, are there enough senior assistants to promote as headmasters, for instance?
“It’s going to take a while,” he added, pointing to the practicalities.
He said teacher training would take three to five years.
The Government would have to look at the remuneration offered to attract sufficient numbers of non-Malay teachers.
And providing language classes was ideal if conducted during school hours, for this is one of the reasons the POL classes had failed in its delivery.
“The Indian community is quite sentimental about Tamil language,” said Dr Jayasooria.
Abdullah does not expect miracles in his desire to make the national schools so attractive that parents of all races will be drawn to send their children there.
He is long-sighted enough to wait a decade or two to see his blueprint for youthful integration come to maturity.