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Vernacular schools – a never-ending punching bag

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Politicians and others with vested interests should stop using vernacular schools as a tool of political expediency to promote their agenda, write Khoo Kok Heong.

I read with trepidation a recent article “Start forging unity in school“.

Vernacular schools have been with us even before independence. Until today, they have periodically been used as a scapegoat for the root cause of disunity among Malaysians.

Malaysians, however, are now more receptive and liberal to the benefits of vernacular schools.

With the passage of time, many changes have taken place in the education landscape in Malaysia.

One such change is the emergence of a large number of international schools which has had an impact on unity and integration.

Another development is the popularity of Chinese vernacular schools not only among the Chinese but also among quite a few Malays and other ethnic groups. Many Malaysians have become more receptive to the benefits of Chinese vernacular schools.

This major shift in the education landscape brings a new perspective and a new development in inter-ethnic relationships and integration in such schools and among the Malaysian public at large.

The international schools are akin to the English-medium schools of yesteryear. They have conducive characteristics and an environment to promote integration among the various ethnic groups.

With the popularity of international schools growing by leaps and bounds, it is not right to say that the national schools still hold the only key to racial integration and unity anymore.

And with a large number of children of Chinese and other ethnic origins enrolling in Chinese vernacular schools, the enrolments of national schools could fall. Presently, some 80, 000 Malay students attend Chinese vernacular schools across the country – and the number is rising.

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With this twin phenomena, the national schools can no longer be considered as the only viable bridge for integration and unity. Previously, regarded as the most important tool to promote unity and integration, many of these schools have now taken a back stage.

At the rate things are going, many national schools – with some notable exceptions, especially national schools in affluent urban areas that are still in great demand – may end up with such poor enrolments that they will not play a great part in promoting unity anymore.

International and Chinese vernacular schools are slowly but surely assuming that role. Many national schools have only themselves to blame for losing their shine as the schools of choice.

For these national schools to make a comeback, they must go for a total overhaul. Reforms must be carried out in the choice of principal and the composition and quality of administrative staff and teachers.

Discriminatory policies must be removed and all ethnic groups treated fairly. No more directives to hold moral lessons outside the normal school hours or to forbid non-Muslim students from eating in the canteen during the fasting month – just to name a couple.

Politicians and others with vested interests should stop using the vernacular schools as a tool of political expediency to promote their agenda. If they do, it would only create disunity among the people.

Let this issue of Chinese vernacular schools be buried once and for all. We have wasted too much time for far too long politicising this issue.

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Let water finds its own level. Let parents choose what type of school is best for their children. After all, parents know best.

Khoo Kok Heong is a former teacher based in Penang. He recently attended an Aliran writers’ workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”.

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