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Tamil Schools

The Cinderella of Malaysian Education

by K Arumugam

tamil schools
Tamil schools need government and community support
One of the most controversial debates about the Tamil schools system is, to have it, or not to have it. Shoes went flying in a meeting some 30 years ago, when an unsuspecting scholar, then the head of Indian Studies Department called for the closure of the Tamil schools as an alternative to saving the children.

The Tamil language, rooted in antiquity and which flourished some 2,500 years ago, is one of the oldest surviving languages. Interwoven in the culture and religion, the language has become the emotional make-up and identity of the Tamil masses. The Tamil schools form part of a struggle by cultural/language advocates in Malaysia to sustain and maintain that history, arguably at a heavy cost to the development of the human capital.

In his pioneering work in 1987, T. Marimuthu, calling the Tamil school the Cinderella of the whole Malaysian educational system, sums it up as follows:

� .. children of the plantation poor, schooled in the neighbourhood Tamil school, have not been able to use the school as an avenue of educational and social mobility. This is due to the host of socio-economic and cultural factors originating from the home as well as the low quality of schooling�failure (of the children) is individualized and not externalized. The individual takes the blame. In the world of work, .. (they) fill the unskilled, slightly skilled and semi skilled occupational categories.. Now the wheel completes full circle; the son of a plantation worker becomes a better plantation worker.�
At present the Tamil schools accommodate almost 50% of school-going Indian Malaysian children. This article takes a glance at the history and status, the trend and the hope in the Tamil school system.

History and Status

The first Tamil school was set up at the beginning of the 18th century. The Penang Free School, set up by Rev. R. Hutchings in 1816, was reported to contain a class to conduct �formal� Tamil education in the Straits Settlement. The 1912 Labour Ordinance compelled the planters to set up ad-hoc schools for children of the plantation labour. The number of schools increased to 333 in 1930, 547 in 1938, 741 in 1947 and to its maximum of 888 in 1957. After the country�s independence, the shift in education policy and the labour migration led to the closing down of many schools. In 1963 there were 720 such schools. By 2000 there were only 526.

The setting up of the Tamil schools and some Telugu schools was primarily meant for the children from the labour class. The majority of the schools were set up in the plantations merely to fulfil the statutory requirement more than to provide a meaningful education. Termed as partially funded schools, these schools did not fall within the government�s public spending expenditure. Located in private lands, they lacked infrastructure, trained teachers and resources, materials and books.

There have been many studies on the Tamil school system - all pointing to the Tamil school system being weak, lacking in facilities with the highest drop out rate and poor performance. None of the studies thus far has put the problem of the Tamil schools in the right perspective. If socio-economic inequality is the determining factor for a child�s performance then what happens to the position of similar children in mainstream education. If the medium of instruction is the main culprit for poor performance, then one will find it difficult to explain the good performance of the Chinese medium children.

Without exhaustive analysis of internal and external factors, it is premature for anyone to suggest that Tamil education is a waste.

Tamil Education or No Education

In an unpublished paper, R.Thillainathan, an economist, cautioned in 1988 that for the Tamil children from poor homes it is either �Tamil education or no education�. He linked factors such as mother tongue language as an immediate communication tool, proximity of schools and cultural shock for Tamil-speaking children from poor homes in a non-Tamil speaking environment. This notion was not completely wrong. From 1990 to year 2000, the enrolment in Tamil schools declined both in relative terms as well as in real numbers.

The year 1993 recorded the highest enrolment of about 104,600 children enrolling in the Tamil schools. However, this number dropped to about 90,280 in year 2000. The drop is despite the fact that during the same period there was an increase in the school-going population. A quantitative estimate of children in the school system for the year 1998, showed some 15,000 Indian children in the age range of 6 to 11 were not enrolled in the school system. It is unlikely that these children belonged to any other group but the working class.

One plausible explanation could be that the period 1990 to 2000 marked an era of rapid development of the economy, in particular the development of agricultural land banks. This led to large scale migration of plantation labour to urban areas, causing an acute drop in the enrolment in the Tamil schools in the plantations. This did not lead to a corresponding increase in the urban school enrolment. This meant that these 15,000 children were not in the school system mainly due to the unavailability of Tamil schools in the urban setting. One can also ask, why were they not in the mainstream schools?

Political Dilemma and Drama

One of the strongest advocates of Tamil education is the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Pointing to the continued existence of the Tamil school system as its achievement (if not for the MIC, there will not be any Tamil schools), the MIC has done its greatest disservice to the poor Indians. The MIC thrived on the weaknesses of the Tamil schools system by co-opting the teachers and headmasters as its members. The culture of paternalism and rhetoric ruled the day. The children never saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a trend that the votes of the Indians became an essential bargaining tool in obtaining federal and state subsidies for the upkeep of the schools. The total weakness of the schools and the lack of governmental intervention is a reflection of the MIC�s weak bargaining power within the ruling party.

To date there has not been enough serious effort by the MIC to address the basic issues related to the Tamil schools. It seems reluctant to allow the community the option of confronting the government of the day to do something about the plight of the Tamil schools. Public spending on Tamil schools to date has been woefully lacking.

However, the politics of confrontation, if it can be interpreted as such, helped the Tamil schools during the period 1990 to 1995. M.G. Pandithan, an axed MIC leader who went on to establish the Indian Progressive Front (IPF), which was part of the opposition coalition in 1990, created a split in the Indian votes.

The government, perhaps fearing potential vote swings in a number of parliamentary and state seats where Indians voters made up at least 10% of the electorate, decided to look at the Tamil school problems a little more closely. The allocation under the 6th Malaysia plan (1990-1995) was an unprecedented RM 27,042,000, about 2.14% of the total allocation for education. However, when things returned to normal, Pandithan choosing to support the BN and the MIC thriving on the handouts and allocations, the Indians voted without any reservations for the BN. The resounding BN victory in 1995, ended the edge gained by political bargaining. The budget allocation for Tamil schools in the 7th Malaysia plan (1996-2000) was reduced to half, only RM 10,902,000 or about 1.02% of the total allocation for education.

The allocation for the Tamil schools in the 8th Malaysia plan is expected to far exceed previous amounts primarily due to the increased bargaining power gained by the MIC by virtue of the development of opposition politics and the activism and demands of the NGOs.

The Performance

Are the academic performance of the children and the medium of instruction inter-related? Often the Tamil schools bear the brunt of the blame for the poor performance of the children. R.Santhiram tends to argue that the socio-economic status of the children is more significant than the medium of instruction. His research on selected children from poor socio economic backgrounds in both national schools and Tamil schools did not reveal any significant difference in their performance, except in the Malay language subject.

  Tamil National Chinese




























Performance in UPSR for the different medium schools (%)
N. Iyngkaran, supports the argument that there is no relative disadvantage in going to Tamil schools. By comparing the UPSR results for the year 2000 and 2001, Tamil school children performed almost at par with the national average in Mathematics, Science and English, the three common subjects for all the mediums. (See Table)

However, the poorer performance in the Malay language subject compared to the national medium and Chinese medium schools placed the overall pass rate of the Tamil schools among the lowest. In the year 2001, in the Bahasa Melayu Penulisan (Malay language - written) and Bahasa Melayu Pemahaman (Malay language - comprehension) papers the Tamil schools recorded 40% and 55% respectively. For the same subjects, the Chinese schools posted 57% and 66% and the National schools 84% and 88% respectively.

A strong advocate of Tamil schools, Iyngkaran argues that Tamil schoolchildren are not to be regarded as weak in the light of their improved performance in recent times. Given their handicapped position and their socio-economic status, the Tamil schoolchildren have the potential to even out perform their peers in the other medium, if the prerequisites in terms of governmental intervention and community support.

Future of Tamil Schools

Tamil schools are bound to stay. They are a matter of pride and dignity for more than half of Indian Malaysians. To them, the need for an unpolarised system of education bridging the gap of unity and racial understanding is rhetoric. It is also not possible to dismantle mother tongue education, without disrupting the cultural and religious fabric that has provided identity and belonging.

If only unity among the various ethnic groups was a question of mere language! Perhaps, a new dimension in understanding the economic, social and cultural rights of individuals and communities within a frame work of respecting, promoting, protecting and fulfilling such rights should be recognized. It should lead to a discovery of the inner potential of humankind to harness the purpose for life and living - which, one supposes, is the real goal of education.

K. Arumugam is a coordinator of the Group of Concerned Citizens, an Indian-based lobby group formed to initiate discussions on various inter- and intra-community issues.

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