I WOULD like to refer to the recurring debate on the declining state of our national unity notably in the last 20 years. There is obviously a multitude of reasons for this downward trend but I firmly maintain that our school system is definitely one of the major causes.
As many are aware, unity of the people does not happen by chance nor can it be achieved overnight. It needs to be nurtured among the populace by instilling in them the spirit of respect, understanding, tolerance, caring and sharing.
Unfortunately, in this country political expediency and the chauvinistic attitude of many have subjected our multiracial, multireligious and multicultural society to various negative and acrimonious influences which continue to divide the people, thus damaging the relationship among them.
There is an urgent need for a conscious and sincere effort to overcome this sad situation, and what better way to achieve this than to look at our schools. The renowned Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once said: “To build a nation, first build a school.”
It is at school that the young who are impressionable with their fresh minds are able to interact with one another regardless of their race, creed or colour. It is here that they have the opportunity to foster racial goodwill and inculcate a sense of oneness. These attributes gained while in school would enable them to live in peace and harmony with one another and stay united in the future. As the Malay proverb says “Melentur buluh biarlah dari rebungnya (to bend a bamboo tree, start when it’s still a shoot)”, which in this case means start cultivating good values at a very early age.
One would realise that many Malaysians born before the 1970s are more multiracial in their thoughts and deeds. This is the result of numerous factors in the past, but their early interaction as young children in the same school is definitely one of them.
Consider the United States of America as an example. US citizens originated from all parts of the world but until today, the country maintains English as its main language of instruction in virtually all schools even though more than 21% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. That surely speaks volumes for the importance of schools and the medium of instruction in achieving unity even for an advanced country like the US.
That said, it is time we work on ensuring that all Malaysian children go to the same school and speak in the same language. Thus, there must only be a single school system, national school, with Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction. However, it is important for these schools to offer and make mother tongue subjects compulsory to encourage parents to send their children there and preserve their constitutional rights for their community language.
These schools should also continue to incorporate extensively the current Dual Language Programme (DLP) where subjects like Science and Maths can also be taught in English. They should set in motion a concerted effort to make available and optimise the learning of English and also Mandarin, which is fast becoming a world language.
All these must be embedded within the national education policy to pave the way for our children to remain united under any circumstance and are able to confidently face global challenges in the future.
To be fair, there are concerns that the current standard of national schools may be relatively lower compared to vernacular schools. If this is found to be true, then the obvious way forward is for the former to adopt the latter’s curriculum and emulate all its good practices. Surely, in the spirit of togetherness, efforts can be made to share and exchange relevant teaching staff between these schools.
This may seem simplistic, but these and any other practical solutions, such as increasing the number of non-Malay teachers in national schools, must be put in place for the benefit of future generations.
There is also the perceived fear that national schools are subjected to a Malay and Islamic-centric agenda. I believe that non-Muslim parents should not worry as long as the schools treat all students equally, do not separate them based on race or force them to become Muslims. Nonetheless, the authorities should always monitor these schools to ensure they stick to the Education Ministry’s guidelines in order to create a favourable learning environment where students do not feel isolated or discriminated against. National schools must be treated as schools for all races.
Acknowledging that our people are heterogeneous, we must not only be proud of this diversity but should also take advantage of it if we want to compete on the global stage. However, any initiative we embark towards this end should not in any way jeopardise efforts to enrich our single school system.
Lastly, but most importantly, we need strong political will to make certain that this school system works. I sincerely hope the powers that be would not wait any longer to integrate, in its true sense, the various races in this country.