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Schools should project unity in diversity – not unity by separation

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What is required are schools in a single stream but which celebrate diversity and with mother tongue education made compulsory, argues Ronald Benjamin.

Lately, political actors have engaged in a heated debate over whether Malaysia should have a single stream of education as the multi-stream system practised currently is inimical to national unity.

It is obvious that Malaysia seems to have an education system that caters to ethnic, religious, and elite aspirations. This is contrary to article 8 of the federal constitution, which asserts an equality that goes beyond an ethnic sense.

As a citizen, I wonder how I can get quality education within a polarised education system. When schools are separated, can I build a solidarity of sorts with my brothers and sisters from other ethnic groups in a common struggle with similar aspirations?

When I can’t afford quality education in international schools, doesn’t this reflect the unjust commercialisation of education and an erosion of the fundamental right to an equal education? It is puzzling that politicians are not debating these issues with integrity but instead seem bent on scoring political points.

What is interesting here is that the politicians who usually adopt a so-called noble attitude to single-stream education are part of an ingrained ethno-centric political system that they have no intention of transforming. They would rather keep the ethnic framework of educational issues alive and unsettled. Unfortunately, polarisation shaped by vested interests has weakened the resolve of citizens to shape education.

The quest for a unified education system should start with a political system in which the various communities are regarded as citizens rather than tribes within Malaysia. Such ‘tribal thinking’ creates rivalry within communities even in importance areas of the common good such as education.

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It is time for a consensus on education between the Barisan National government and the opposition on how to transcend ethnicity in the system – in which some have an advantage over others – to create an education system with solidarity in mind.

What is required are schools in a single stream but which celebrate diversity and with mother tongue education made compulsory.

Sometimes, an argument ensues that mother tongue education would be lost if there were no Malay, Chinese or Indian-centred schools. But then, I have seen quite a number of educated parents speaking English to their children at home due to the importance placed on the language. The mother tongue is less spoken – which is a worrying trend. Parents are the first teachers of languages, not schools.

Schools should be a place of unity in diversity rather than the unity by separation that Malaysian students now experience.

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