There’s always that time of year when questions concerning the appropriateness of maintaining the vernacular school system become all the rage in the news. This year, the argument revolves around the question of whether it’s the national school system or the vernacular system that is better at promoting national unity.
National unity is a rather vague concept, but in the context of the current argument, we can perhaps define it as the intermingling of the various races at a young age in order to eliminate communalism.
It would immediately appear that the national – or public – school system has an advantage because it is open to all Malaysians, but then so are the vernacular schools. And indeed, the Chinese schools in particular have, over the years, been increasing their enrolment of non-Chinese pupils.
Nevertheless, opponents of vernacular education persist in arguing that Chinese schools, by their very existence, cause segregation between Malaysian Chinese children and other Malaysian children who could have otherwise been their playmates. Another recurring gripe is the alleged neglect of the national language in Chinese schools.
While a public school is by no means a race-free space in reality, neither is a vernacular school necessarily isolationist. Both have their weaknesses within the dilemma raised by the question of national unity and both have their strengths.
A recent testimony by a Malay UEC graduate reminded the public that Chinese schools essentially recognise merit above all else. That’s just a simpler way of saying that Chinese schools provide an environment of equality, with each pupil judged only by how he or she performs academically.
That being said, there is also justification in the grievances of the opponents of vernacular schooling. Bahasa proficiency is indeed sometimes lacking in the graduates of vernacular schools, and that limits our children’s chances to experience each other beyond the biases of adults. A language barrier is indeed a hard obstacle to overcome. It usually takes years of work.
Perhaps one way forward is a unification of the two systems and a requirement for students to study a third language of their choice, and perhaps this should be either Chinese or one of the Indian languages. With China and India emerging as global superpowers with exceptionally large populations, learning Chinese or Tamil or Hindi could prove to be a strategic move in the long run, not to mention an opportunity to change the nation’s fate through education. -FMT