‘Prof Teo Kok Seong’s assessment of vernacular schools is a qualified academic privilege’

‘Prof Teo Kok Seong’s assessment of vernacular schools is a qualified academic privilege’
"‘Prof Teo Kok Seong’s assessment of vernacular schools is a qualified academic privilege’"

The issue of vernacular schools has been a recurring polemic among politicians, academicians, cultural activists and interested educationists, especially among the Malays and the Chinese.

It has once again surfaced after the Federal Court ruled last month that vernacular schools were constitutional, and dismissed the appeal of two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which sought to declare that the use of Chinese and Tamil languages as the medium of instruction in those schools was against the Federal Constitution.

This was followed by the Umno Youth, who claimed that vernacular schools contributed to the lack of unity among the population.

Adding further fuel to the issue was National Professor Council fellow, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong’s statement published in an online portal, that said that vernacular schools were the cause of disunity among Malaysians. His statement sparked adverse reactions from among the Chinese politicians, including DAP, resulting in several police reports being made against him.

It then took an unprecedented turn when Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail informed Parliament that the police have initiated investigations against Teo for his offensive remarks about the Chinese community regarding vernacular schools.

Teo’s statements, that “national schools are obstacles to national unity as the Chinese look down on the Malays” and “95 per cent of Chinese students are sent to vernacular schools”, caught the ire of Lim Guan Eng and Teresa Kok. It provoked Lim to remark in Parliament that Teo had forgotten his roots. Lim however, retracted his remarks after being cautioned by the Speaker, Tan Sri Johari Abdul.

Here is an eminent and respected academician looking at an issue of national import from a purely unadulterated academic perspective. But Lim’s remarks suggested that Teo tempered his statements with a bias to his lineage.

Teo’s assessment of the influence and impact of vernacular schools on national unity is a qualified academic privilege without any intended aspersions towards any community. In fact, there have been Malays who went against the grain of Malay interest, and even adat, viewing it from the socio-cultural, economic, and even religious perspectives. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s book, ‘The Malay Dilemma’, is one such example.

Tongkat Warrant (Usman Awang’s) poems chastised the Malays in many ways. Likewise, A. Samad Said’s sajaks (poems) and short stories. There are other writers and political commentators who challenged the Malay Bumiputera norms. But there was no uproar then, unlike the furore that followed Professor Teo’s commentary. Perhaps the Malays were not that defensive back then.

Before condemning Teo, we must look at the indices he mentioned and survey the situation on the ground.

National unity is easily achieved in a homogenous society that has common cultural markers. Indonesia prides itself on such cohesiveness, despite the existence of differing lineages and faiths. The populace accepts with pride their identity as Indonesians, speaking one national language in all aspects of governance, commerce, social and cultural, and educational interactions. Of course, there is only one educational stream. Other races, especially the Chinese, have assimilated into Indonesian society, even changing their names to Indonesian ones.

Likewise, in Thailand, there’s one language and one educational stream. And the Thai language permeates all aspects of existence.

In both these countries, people, especially school children, study, work, and play together.

But Malaysia is a plural society with the indigenous Malay stock forming most of the populace. The Chinese, Indians, and others were introduced into the Malay milieu during the colonial period, thus forming a multiracial society. Unlike the neighbouring countries, the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia maintained their cultural and linguistic identity without any forced assimilation or integration.

The consequence is the segregation of the indigenous and immigrant populations, even after they achieved citizenship after independence.

To foster unity, the government then legislated Malay as the national language and encouraged the non-native speakers to learn it. The government also established the national educational stream. But the use of the language was limited during the first 15 years after Merdeka, until Malay was made the medium of instruction in national schools. Even then, Malay was limited to schools when learning curricular subjects.

Outside school, the non-Malay students, understandably, converse in their respective mother tongues. As a result, a large portion of the non-Malay community, except those in Sabah and Sarawak, cannot read or write in Malay, even after 60 years of independence.

But this effort at unity was stymied with the proliferation of Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools, which attracted children from these ethnic groups. Here, the respective ethnic and cultural identities were impressed upon the students. As a result, the three main ethnic groups were segregated with no common ground to interact and play, and learn each other’s cultures and faiths.

This unfortunate situation persists until today and is aggravated by partisan politics and religious bigotry.

Today, school-going children are segregated from Day One; the Malays go to national schools, and the Chinese and Indians attend their respective vernacular schools. There is no common ground for integration among these races for the first six years of primary education. During these formative and impressionable years, they are cocooned, bred, and educated within the confines of their respective socio-cultural and language enclave.

In fact, Chinese students could go through the vernacular school system from primary to tertiary education either without, or with slight interaction with other races. Then, they work in Chinese firms, where Mandarin is the language of communication and commerce. Such people, due to the nature of their limited exposure, would find difficulty in interacting with other races.

Racial polarisation is also evident in public universities, more so in private ones.

Based on this discussion, Teo’s assessment of vernacular schools vis-a-vis national unity may hold water.

It is imperative we view Teo’s statements in a disinterested manner, sans emotional ethnic, and political leanings, and determine the plausibility of his statements. So that together, we can arrive at an understanding for the betterment of our education system to foster national unity.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.

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