Deputy Youth and Sports Minister as well as the Bersatu Armada wing chief Senator Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal have recently drawn the nation’s attention again to the prevailing issue regarding the status of vernacular schools.
On August 26, he mentioned that Armada will continue pushing for the abolishment of vernacular schools in this country because he alleged that vernacular schools have not produced students who possess a “strong national identity.”
Several politicians as well as NGOs immediately rebutted his remarks as racist and a total ignorance of the multiracial, multicultural and multilingual Malaysian community.
This issue is highly controversial because on the one hand, the status of vernacular schools is recognised in the Constitution, in which Article 152(1) states that the national language shall be the Malay language and that no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (except for official purposes) or from teaching or learning any other language.
On the other hand, the calling for the abolishment of vernacular schools is actually acceptable in a sense that a unified daily-use language generally helps in fostering unity among the people in a multiracial country. The history of nation state proves this. Our neighbours including Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines are examples of this argument.
In a multiethnic country, there are several approaches to deal with the relationship between different ethnic groups, namely assimilation, integration and multiculturalism.
Assimilation can be defined as the giving up of one’s own ethnic identity and adopting that of the mainstream society; integration can be seen as a process of adapting into a community through accepting its rules but not through completely surrendering one’s own background; multiculturalism refers to the equal coexistence of different cultures without one culture having the right to dominate the others.
Generally, assimilation and multiculturalism are two ends of the spectrum, while integration is the median. Therefore, Wan Ahmad Fayhsal’s demand is valid if only Malaysian society is planning to or actually undergoing assimilation, which is not the reality. The reality is that Malaysia since its birth has chosen the middle path, that is the integration between different races.
The incumbent PN government has also reaffirmed this stance. According to the National Unity Minister Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique, there is no need to abolish vernacular schools to promote the national unity agenda.
Hence, it is considerably pointless to carry on the dispute regarding vernacular schools. Rather, politicians should avoid making statements on this due to the racial sentiment embedded in it which tends to deteriorate the racial harmony in Malaysia.
The people, especially non-Malays often perceive this as a political trick to seek political mileage.
However, the concern on strengthening unity among the people as well as enhancing the mastery of Malay language should be taken seriously. In terms of strengthening unity among the people, it is worth remembering that the problem largely lies within the national secondary schools (SMK) because authentic vernacular schools only exist in primary level.
Even with the existence of international school, Chinese independent high school and others, the truth is that majority of the people enter SMKs for their secondary education. The SMKs bear the biggest responsibility in fostering unity among the people. Therefore, instead of banning vernacular schools, we should focus more on how to deepen the racial integration in SMKs.
On the other hand, the government as well as vernacular schools can do more to promote the integration among races. The Ministry of Education has actually drafted several plans in consonance to this purpose in previous years, such as the School Integration Programme, (Program Sekolah Integrasi, PSI), the Pupils’ Integration for Unity Plan (Rancangan Integrasi Murid-murid Untuk Perpaduan, Rimup) and the Vision School Progarmme (Program Sekolah Wawasan, PSW).
However, not every plan receives positive feedback and support from the stakeholders. The PSI and PSW for instance, have failed to garner support from vernacular schools and the non-Malays communities, hence they are unable to be applied nationwide.
In contrast, Rimup is very much welcomed by the stakeholders as it created consensus among them. It was introduced in 1986 mandated to foster interaction between students in SKs and vernacular schools in the same district or area through various activities, including academic activities, sports events, games, festivals, gatherings, camping, visits and social services.
In 2005, Rimup was extended to secondary schools. However, Rimup’s inconsistency is its major shortcoming, which mainly has to deal with the lack of funds and promotion by the relevant governmental agencies, as well as the lack of commitment from the schools and other stakeholders.
These are the areas which require more attention from the government and also more collaboration among the stakeholders.
Rukun Negara and the National Unity Action Plan 2021-2025 blueprint are another way to strengthen the unity among the people without having to abolish vernacular schools.
According to Datuk Halimah, there are about 6,621 Rukun Negara clubs in primary and secondary schools nationwide. The ministry has also been working closely with other ministries on how Rukun Negara could be further instilled in the education system.
In terms of enhancing the mastery of Malay language among non-Malays, vernacular schools should allocate more time for Malay subject. Also, the teachers have to adopt the approach of teaching Malay as a second language as it is more effective in ensuring the learning passion of the non-Malays.
Some non-Malays have to cease seeing Malay as inferior to English, and cherish our national language.
Malaysia has been independent for 63 years, yet the nation building is still an ongoing process. We have to admit that the racial relations in Malaysia are rather fragile as the hot topics in politics are still race and religion.
To move beyond this, more racial integration and interaction should be prioritised. Programmes on the enhancement of Malay language should be initiated. But, abolishing vernacular schools is definitely not the answer because about 18 per cent of the current students in Chinese vernacular schools is non-Chinese, which makes it a platform for racial integration too.
Hopefully, Malaysia can be a role-model to the world in racial integration.
Jamari Mohtar and Lim Ji Yi are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.
Pada 26 Ogos lalu, Ketua Armada Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), Senator Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal menggesa pemansuhan sekolah vernakular di negara ini kerana gagal menghasilkan pelajar yang mampu memperlihatkan jati diri nasional yang kental.
Sebenarnya, gesaan Wan Ahmad Fayhsal adalah tepat jika masyarakat sedang menjalani asimilasi, iaitu penyerahan identiti etnik seseorang dan penerapan identiti masyarakat arus perdana tetapi ini bukan kenyataannya.
Realiti sekarang ialah Malaysia sejak penubuhannya telah memilih integrasi antara pelbagai kaum yang merujuk kepada proses menyesuaikan diri masyarakat dengan menerima peraturannya tetapi tidak melalui penyerahan penuh latar belakang seseorang.
Kerajaan Perikatan Nasional (PN) juga telah menyatakan pendirian apabila Menteri Perpaduan Negara, Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique menjelaskan, tiada keperluan untuk memansuhkan sekolah vernakular bagi mendorong agenda perpaduan negara.
Perlu ingat, punca kerapuhan perpaduan kebanyakannya berakar di sekolah menengah kebangsaan (SMK) kerana sekolah vernakular hanya wujud di peringkat sekolah rendah.
Lantaran itu, SMK memikul tanggungjawab amat berat dalam memupuk perpaduan masyarakat. Kita harus lebih fokus kepada langkah-langkah mendalamkan integrasi antara kaum di SMK.
Memansuhkan sekolah vernakular Cina pasti bukan jawapannya kerana kira-kira 18 peratus murid di sekolah jenis itu adalah bukan Cina, justeru menjadikannya juga wadah untuk integrasi antara kaum.
Jamari Mohtar dan Lim Ji Yi merupakan Pasukan Penyelidik di EMIR Research, sebuah organisasi pemikir bebas yang berfokuskan kepada pencernaan saranan-saranan dasar strategik berteraskan penyelidikan yang terperinci, konsisten dan menyeluruh.