Neutral dimension to
BEFORE independence and in the years immediately after, Malaysian parents’ school of choice for their children was the English-medium school. A legacy of British rule, these schools attracted a good mix of the country’s ethnic groups, with the Chinese dominating in urban areas. Malay parents were persuaded to enrol their children directly or in the Special Malay Class of the English schools after their primary education in Malay. Like most urban Malays and Chinese, the town Indians saw value in a good English education.
All subjects in the school curriculum save for the languages and Islamic religious studies were taught in English – the socio-culturally and politically “neutral” language in the country. Paradoxically, although touted among certain quarters as the Christian colonialists’ expansionist tool, it was English that united teachers and school children of all ethnic backgrounds as they studied, communicated and bonded in the language. Most importantly, learning in English opened minds to a broad base of knowledge and sharpened language and communication skills in the international language.
In studying English literature, Malaysian students were constantly exposed to universal human values espoused in the classics and in history, including the history of world religions, they were enlightened on significant events as well as to the deeds of visionary leaders. Except in mission schools where Christian prayers were said at school assemblies and to celebrate festive occasions, the English schools remained secular in orientation and ambience with no domination of one set of cultural values over another. Malaysians were then a culturally confident and secure people in their homes and ethnic communities.
The first transformation occurred with the formulation of the Education Act of 1961 (input by the Razak Report of 1956 and the Rahman Talib Report of 1960) when the federal education policy became ostensibly defined by the nation’s political ideals of establishing “a national system of education … to promote the cultural, economical and political advancement in this country, besides making the Malay language the national language …” With the complete switch to Malay-medium national schools in 1970, the public school system has continuously accommodated the growing demands of Chinese and Tamil-language education of national-type schools.
Thus, from the language and culture neutrality of an English education, the country’s education system has become linguistically and culturally fragmented with all its socio-cultural ramifications. The growth of the Malay language and culture has been advanced along with that of Chinese and Tamil. Successive educational reforms have attempted to add value to a multi-layered education system which equitably reflects the multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural composition of the rakyat.
However, over the last three decades there have been disconcerting developments with each school-type promoting its cause in less discreet ways, each pointing a finger at the other for its popularity or lack of it. One of the reasons proffered for the mushrooming of private schools and national-type schools, especially Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina, is that Sekolah Kebangsaan have become predominantly Malay in the composition of their staff and students. Their Muslim veneer and ambience, it is said, are frightening the Chinese, Indians and other non-Muslims away – all disturbing developments in a secular education system.
So, apart from cosmetic reforms like the PPSMI or the MBMMBI, or abolishing examinations and opting for innovative learning methodologies, what can be done to prevent the more substantive erosion of a unifying national education policy?
Fifty years on and with a more enlightened and confident Malaysian public, it is time to embark on a second transformation of the education system. To balance the Malay, Chinese and Tamil linguistic and cultural silos entrenched in national and national-type schools, a neutral dimension must be added by way of a more rigorous English education. English, after all, is the first language of many Malaysians.
What the country needs to move forward is a transforming bilingual education system supported by a sound Bilingual Education Policy. To circumvent the continuous bargaining between the country’s three major ethnic groups in their bid to assume linguistic and cultural superiority, the English language must resurface as a peace and pacemaker.
Among others, the following changes can be implemented:
— Make English the language of instruction for the English language, literature and history in all the school types;
— Incorporate English reading and references for other subjects taught in Malay, Chinese and Tamil;
— Phase out Malay-Muslim cultural elements of national schools;
— Balance the appointments of school heads and teachers from all ethnic groups in national and national-type schools;
— Balanced the intake of students from all ethnic groups in national and national-type schools.
The Malay-medium national school must be transformed to become the school of choice for Malaysian parents and their children because it is seen as upholding the spirit of inclusivity and oneness of the national ideology. The transformation requires courage and conviction, and a transparently structured implementation plan.