Friday, September 09, 2005

Another take on the vernacular school debate

Vernacular schools a threat to national unity?
I don't think so...

Let me put it this way. Vernacular schools provide an alternative choice for parents who wish for a different kind of learning environment for their children. Much have been written about the state of affairs affecting our national schools that I would not wish to present my views here lest I offend someone by being politically incorrect in my choice of words.

I have my own take on why vernacular schools are increasingly a popular choice for non-Malays (and also an increasing number of Malays). First and foremost is the desire for parents to provide their children the opportunity to learn to master another language (whether it is their mother-tongue or otherwise) because there is always an economic advantage to be gained by knowing how to communicate in more languages. Secondly, for a non-Chinese to master Mandarin and vice versa for a non-Indian to master Tamil, surely this will make them more able to appreciate the sensitivities of this group of people who are of different race, religion and culture and in the process, their ability to understand each other's mother-tongue only makes it easier for them to interact with each other and therefore, enhance unity among the various races.

We all had to learn Bahasa Malaysia from young and therefore, we had an advantage because we can read the Malay newspapers and understand what our Malay friends are talking about, even if we may not be that articulate when trying to converse in Malay. Nevertheless, for the Malays, they are disadvantaged when it comes to knowing what the rest of us talk about in our mother-tongue, much like what we experience when we try to understand a Kelantanese speak in their local dialect. So a lot of time, people get uncomfortable and suspicious due to this lack of understanding and knowledge. Whether it is intentional or not, the education policy has given the non-Malays a head start in life by equipping them with the ability to at least speak in 3 different languages, English being the other common language taught in all schools.

Coming back to the issue of why we choose vernacular primary schools, one reason most people would think trivial is the fact that in these schools, it is still acceptable for our kids to dress in shorts and short-sleeved t-shirts for physical education sessions, whether they are boys or girls. And the boys and girls are never segregated during such sessions, whether on the field or in the pool where everyone would be donning their swimsuits and swimming trunks. I like to think that we are keeping alive our children's innocence and carefree spirit by allowing them the opportunity to participate in healthy sporting activities together without the burden of false modesty at such a tender age. Besides, sometimes I think it is not healthy for kids to work-out in long pants and t-shirts in our kind of weather where the mornings can get quite hot and humid, which is the current practice in most national schools.

We can choose to make the acquisition of more languages into our repertoire a factor to unite our community of different races or we can choose to be defensive and offensive by blaming the existence of vernacular schools as one of the reasons why we increasingly fail to unite after so many years. But I believe that if we can learn to embrace each other instead of shutting out one another, then the chance to build a society which is more tolerant and compassionate may be more achievable than just mere rhetoric. Imagine if someday, it is commonplace to see that Ahmad can comfortably carry out a conversation with Ah Chong in Mandarin and Muthu in Tamil. Wouldn't Ahmad have much to gain if he should venture into doing business in China or India, or even back home in multi-racial Malaysia? Even a politician of Ahmad's calibre would be highly sought after for he would embody the very essence of an integrated Malaysian and would appeal to a large cross section of the voters!

We really should take a serious re-look at the national school system and have the necessary political will to change it to better reflect the needs of society as a whole, and not just catering to the sensitivities of any one particular group. We are facing global challenges and if we insist on having tunnel vision and continue to blow our own trumpet as "jaguh kampung", then we have only ourselves to blame when the world leaves us far behind.

Education is a subject which can be polarising in our country especially so when politicians are the ones who make the rules based on their selfish need to protect their positions of power. No one seems to be bothered that the wrong policies will inadvertently produce drastic consequences for the future of the country as is evidenced now where high unemployment rates is troubling our leaders, specifically when we are faced with an increasingly high number of local graduates who are termed "unemployable" due to various deficiencies. The errors of judgment made in the past have come back to haunt us now. It is increasingly difficult to tackle the problem in a rational way without falling back on the issue of race. Therein lies the misconception of certain people that vernacular schools are a threat to national unity.

Are we going to continue clowning around with the task of educating our young and future leaders?


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