The idea that having single-stream schools is the way to forge unity is just a daydream among those who don’t understand the psychology of multi-racial relations.
Unity is created by what’s going on in the whole of society. This is a fact that cannot be denied.
What has created disunity is racial bigotry, race or religion-based politics, and policies like unequal education opportunities for brilliant children from the ethnic minorities. There is alleged discrimination even in sports.
Even isolated acts of bigotry can cause a lot of damage, eg name-calling using terms such as pendatang and orang asing (foreigners), the conversion of minors, and recent calls to ban Bon Odori and Oktoberfest.
In 2019 out of 521,053 pupils in Chinese schools, 77,537 were bumiputra, 14,072 Indian and 5,807 of other ethnicities. This means there were 19% of the pupils in Chinese schools were not ethnic Chinese, and the number is increasing yearly.
Why this phenomenon? I have spoken to a few parents of such pupils, and they are unanimous in their answer: they believe the quality of education is better in the vernacular schools.
There are complaints that Chinese schools do not have agama lessons in the curriculum. But schools that have more than a certain number of Muslim children do provide suraus for them to pray at.
In the early 1950s, agama was not a subject in the Malay schools. Neither was moral education or even civics. Children learnt agama separately after school. Yet those children grew up with a sound character. I know this firsthand, as I was in a Malay school then.
Religion is said to be about the development of character. But character cannot be taught through formal lessons and exams. It is taught informally through the daily practise of the religious and moral values that society held by society.
This is what is lacking. So many negative values are practised daily in society today. For example, we see corruption in the highest places and non-accountability for deaths in custody.
If the standards of the sekolah kebangsaan (national schools) had not been allowed to fall, and bigotry had not crept into these schools – eg schoolchildren from ethnic minorities being told to “balik Cina” or “balik India” (go back to China or India), ethnic minorities would not have had any reason to leave these schools. That one case of some pupils from ethnic minorities being told to eat in the shower room during Ramadan did a lot of damage to race relations.
All these factors cannot be swept under the carpet if we cherish unity. Getting out of denial mode and stopping all this should be the first step towards recreating unity.
Matters are made worse by the lopsided enforcement of laws on ‘sensitivities’, and this has only encouraged bigotry and racism to grow.
So the solution to unity is not single-stream schools, but to stop all talk and acts of bigotry and racism by acting firmly against all those who stir feelings of discord in order to create an atmosphere of being one family.
If schools are to be the foundation of unity – as they should be – then we must raise the standards of the national schools so that they are on par or even better than the vernacular schools. In this way, ethnic minority parents who want a decent education for their children will voluntarily enrol them in the national schools. Vernacular languages should then be taught in these national schools.