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Why Chinese schools in Malaysia have a future, despite opposition from some

China’s rise, Chinese Malaysians’ fear of losing their cultural identity and Malay parents’ preference for them because of their high standards means Chinese vernacular schools are likely to survive calls for a single school system

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 7:46am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 10:59am

Schools teaching in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil exist side-by-side in multicultural Malaysia, but their coexistence is not always harmonious.

There have long been suggestions that a single national school system should be put in place, but the idea is opposed by the communities that would be affected the most by such a move – and so a long-running debate over whether so-called vernacular schools, those teaching in Mandarin and Tamil, have a place in Malaysia shows no sign of abating.

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Research, led by Dr Sivapalan Selvadurai of the National University of Malaysia and reported in 2015, found support for the continuation of vernacular schools among Chinese stemmed from a fear of losing their cultural identity, a lack of representation of their mother tongue in the national schools which teach in English and Malay, and the perception that Chinese schools offer higher quality education.

Those opposed to vernacular schools, on the other hand, argue that they don’t cultivate national identity or foster cross-cultural experiences, and only encourage segregation.

Many advocates of a single school system cite the success of Singapore as an example. The city state abolished vernacular schools in 1987 and made English the main language of instruction, and its education system is widely commended.

The debate over vernacular schools in Malaysia can become deeply emotional. Last year, a headmistress at a Chinese school was accused of failing to defend a Malay teacher who had claimed she was assaulted by one of her student’s parents. The teacher also accused the headmistress of trying to force her to resign on a separate occasion.

Controversial lecturer Ridhuan Tee Abdullah lashed out in the press after learning about the incident, implying that Chinese schools are racist. He said the Chinese community should be “grateful” because vernacular schools are “tolerated” by Malays.


China’s economic rise and the good reputation of Chinese schools in Malaysia has

led to an increasing number of non-Chinese Malaysians enrolling their children in these schools. Between 2010 and 2014, enrolment of non-Chinese students rose by 20.7 per cent. In 2016, non-Chinese students comprised almost 18 per cent of the total enrolment in Chinese-language primary schools, according to Malaysia Education Statistics. This is despite the fact one of the Education Ministry’s top priorities is to foster better command of the Malay language in vernacular schools.

Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid said in April that they should become more involved in “nationhood programmes” to enhance national unity.

However, Dr Lee Hock Guan, a senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a social and economic research centre in Singapore, disagrees. Lee, whose research has found a growing demand for Mandarin learning globally, says Chinese schools should not be perceived as a stumbling block to national integration, but as a resource.

With growing demand among ethnic Malays for Chinese education, Lee says, state policies should facilitate this by allocating extra resources to Chinese schools and establish new ones, especially in urban areas.

In the first year, I felt a bit awkward and refused to open my mouth to converse
Anisah Mohd Ismaill

Former students of Chinese vernacular schools have mixed feelings about how beneficial they are.

Loo Tze Jin, a 25-year-old assistant manager at a talent programme and sourcing specialist, attended Kuen Cheng High School, a storied private secondary school in Kuala Lumpur that is more than 100 years old.

“In Kuen Cheng, students are given a lot of autonomy to run initiatives and to start up societies,” she says, adding that many vernacular schools do not provide the same opportunities she enjoyed.

“Academically, our syllabuses were far ahead of other schools – I started learning additional mathematics in Form One, while students in other schools started in Form Five,” Loo says. “In my school, we had to learn every single subject in both Chinese and English, and sit two examinations in both languages. This isn’t practised across all vernacular schools.”

Loo credits her fast-tracked career to her schooling at Kuen Cheng, but adds that it was “because of the school’s system, not because it was a vernacular school. Not all vernacular schools provide a good learning environment”.

Graphic designer Daniel Mak, 25, attended SJK (C) Tsun Jin Primary School. He well remembers the disciplinary style that Chinese vernacular schools are known for.

“The workload is intense, and the competitive nature in every class causes quite a lot of stress. Every student is vying to be the best in their class. Mentally, it took a toll on me. Every extra mark counted,” he says.

Mak reckons going to vernacular school and mastering Mandarin didn’t make much of a difference to his career path in graphic design. Despite his own experience, however, he recommends parents send their children to Chinese primary school for their first six years of schooling.

“It doesn’t hurt for your child to go through six years of learning your respective native language. Also, the good thing about Chinese vernacular schools is that there are rarely any disciplinary problems.

The workload is intense, and the competitive nature in every class causes quite a lot of stress
Daniel Mak

The teachers don’t spare the rod. Back then, the rotan [a short bamboo stick used for caning] was the go-to tool for teachers to make sure their students respected and obey their commands.”

Anisah Mohd Ismaill, 46, spent her primary school years at Chung Kwo School in Kuala Lumpur, and was one of just four Malays in her class.

“In the first year, I felt a bit awkward and refused to open my mouth to converse. I just listened and observed. Nobody really conversed in Mandarin then, anyway, it was either Cantonese, Hokkien or Malay,” she recalls.

Now a banker, Ismaill has found that being fluent in two Chinese dialects – Mandarin and Cantonese – has helped create many business opportunities. “It’s been hugely beneficial in my line of work, as I work in customer service in a major bank in Malaysia,” she says. Some of her customers have even given her job offers.

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Ismaill says there is no Chinese vernacular school in her neighbourhood, otherwise she would have sent her children there. Instead, she signed them up for private Mandarin lessons, because she believes strongly they should learn the language.

“In my opinion, because we live in a multiracial country, it is to our advantage to master a third language other than our mother tongue and English,” she says. Ismaill adds that students in Chinese schools are very competitive and understand the importance of working, due to the number of extracurricular activities they undertake.

However, although the rise of China as an economic powerhouse has created a demand for Mandarin learning, many businesses – multinational corporations in particular – still consider English to be the most useful language globally.

Yeo Cheng Por, a corporate adviser at a multinational manufacturing company based in Malaysia, says that although Chinese-educated employees seem to be more disciplined workers, their language limitations make it hard for them to move up the corporate ladder.

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“Because we are a multinational company, and we deal with clients from all over the world, being able to put people forward who can speak English well is an important factor for me. In my experience, Chinese-educated employees are less confident when communicating in English. So while they are undoubtedly good workers and have a strong work ethic, I can’t put them in front of clients to make presentations.”

According to Alicia Tang, a human resources director at a multinational advertising agency, the standard of English overall in Malaysia is falling.

“Across the board, English proficiency levels are dropping. This includes people from national schools, not just vernacular schools,” she says.

Yeo and Tang agree that university degrees and work experience are far more important than which school a prospective employee attended. The worker’s attitude is also important, Yeo says. He adds that Chinese-educated workers tend to take their jobs more seriously and are more loyal to their companies compared to those with an English education, who are more picky and move on sooner.

In Tang’s industry, which incorporates media and mass communication, she finds that many fresh graduates lack creativity and critical thinking skills – and this applies across the board in Malaysia, regardless of what type of school an employee attended.

Yeo still believes that a Chinese education is an advantage, though, due to China’s rise to prominence in global business.

“Those who can’t speak any Mandarin at all will be left behind, in my opinion. Right now, a Chinese education background is very important to Malaysians, especially given the amount of businesses from China that are here.”