Malaysian's Education Divide


Education policies in Malaysia have been a contentious issue even since pre-Independence days. This has always involved matters of both diversity and inequality, which correspond to the different fault-lines of culture and class. While many have lamented on how the cultural-linguistic division has affected national cohesion, one should argue that, while the communal division is real, we are fundamentally dealing with the issue of class.

Class matters

Inequality exists in every society, but the level of education received can intensify or mitigate it by changing the individual’s skill level and earning ability, and subsequently his or her socioeconomic status.

This is called social upward mobility. If education can provide a society with high social upward mobility, hope is provided for the poor, mitigating not only inter-generational transmission of inequality but also socio-political instability.

It will also increase society's overall wealth because randomly distributed talents can be optimally cultivated. This allows more wealth to be shared through provision of public goods or even handouts, thus reducing poverty and inequality. Provided redistribution is subsequently carried out, meritocracy can benefit even the less able ones.

But what if a student's academic performance is not independent, but is rather reflective of his or her family's socioeconomic status? A student who can afford more tuition classes, more reference books or computer skills at an earlier age is likely to do better than another student who cannot, all else being equal. Education can then reinforce rather than reduce inequality across generations, despite the assumption of randomly distributed talents.

In other words, a smart kid from a poor family may drop out from school and earn a meagre income like his or her parents. Meanwhile, a not-so-smart kid born with a silver spoon may get the world's best education and perhaps become even wealthier than his or her parents. Unless checked by some equalising measures, class may reinforce itself through education.

Costly gap

Such gap-widening educational scenarios cost society in two ways. Firstly, economic development will be less than optimal as some smart talents are denied their chance to flourish. Secondly and more importantly, poverty, not just wealth, becomes hereditary. Meritocracy can simply be the disguise for inherited advantages.

Education is a double-edged sword that can enrich society by making its members more competitive and competent, or inhibit competition and growth if inheritance of severe inequality runs rampant. This explains the rationale of scholarships and of free education provided by society or the government – this seeming act of charity is actually one benefiting the population in the long run, an investment driven by enlightened self-interest.

Up to this point, we see how the provision of education to strike the right balance between competition and inequality is complicated enough in itself for any country to deal with.

Now let’s bring ethnic divisions into the mix.

Ethnic division

Have you ever come across a society where every ethnic community has the same class structure, say, 20% being rich, 40% middle class and 40% poor?

Most likely you haven't because, by historical circumstance or cultural preference, different ethnic groups are likely to dominate different economic activities at different degrees. Some ethnic groups will do better overall than others. Education may advantage an ethnic group overrepresented in upper classes even further, and disadvantage another ethnic group overrepresented in the lower socioeconomic strata.

Different prospects of social upward mobility brought about by education therefore breed ethnic tension. If and when the state intervenes to check the imbalance by holding back the advanced groups using fiscal or legal measures, such tensions do not go away but merely take another form.

Naturally, the more economically advanced groups would favour a laissez faire policy and want greater room for differentiation in education – best to direct your taxes to the schools your own kids attend.

On the other hand, if you are poor, you are unlikely to afford private schools or homeschooling for your children, even if you don't trust the quality of state schools. In that sense, educational freedom may simply reinforce class division, which leads to some degree of ethnic division due to the different prospects of social upward mobility.

Linguistic divisions

So far, our theoretical example here assumes only ethnic diversity, not yet linguistic diversity.

Picture the English-speaking whites and the English-speaking blacks in the US. Even though both speak the same language, the blacks are overrepresented in poorly-funded state schools and more likely to end up in low-paying jobs, if not underemployment or unemployment.

While we may agree that the “separate but equal” doctrine is utterly flawed, can mere integration of schools bring about national integration or cohesion?

One's academic performance is determined not only by one's socioeconomic strata but also one's linguistic skills.

Some kids are simply gifted when it comes to languages – there are loads of testimonies from many who did not speak a single word of English before their parents sent them to missionary schools, but who learned it fast and well nevertheless. Also, circumstantial need can also facilitate language learning – just look at how the Burmese, Bangladeshi or Indonesian foreign workers pick up our local tongues in just months or even weeks.

Having said this, other things being equal, education in their mother tongue provides the best learning outcome for most students. Besides one’s familial socioeconomic status, the medium of instruction will affect one's performance in schools and later one’s social upward mobility.

In fact, language also has an economic value. If you have mastered a language, you will naturally benefit from more extensive and valued use of the language. If your mother tongue happens to be the official language, then you have an edge in finding jobs, at least in public service. That's why minorities in India have always fought for their own statehood based on linguistic boundaries, which saw the number of states and territories rise from 20 in 1956 to 35 today.

Naturally, the existence of schools in different languages provides the basis for different strands of linguistic-nationalist movements. More accurately, though, the ties are dialectical. For example, Malay-medium schools in the pre-war years gave birth to Malay linguistic-nationalism, which then pushed for the expanded use of Malay in primary and secondary education, which gave birth to Malay-medium universities.

How do you maintain a nation-state if you have different strands of linguistic nationalism, which are but partial manifestations of different “nations-of-intent”, as anthropologist Shamsul AB put it? And as philosopher John Stuart Mill said: “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.”

Now, is education not to blame for the division in our country?

Shattered dream

Education policy in Malaya, and later Malaysia, has always been tasked with one political goal: promoting national unity by gradually unifying all linguistic streams of schools – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil – into a singular type that is either monolingual or bilingual.

In 1950, the Holgate Report first proposed the “ultimate objective”, with English as the sole medium of instruction. The Barnes Report released the following year proposed a Malay and English bilingual system as the endgame and the phasing out of the community or private-run Chinese and Tamil schools through state negligence.

In 1956, the basic structure of Malaysia's educational system was laid down by the late Tun Abdul Razak in his Razak Report: the establishment of the “standard” primary schools in Malay, and the “standard-type” primary schools in either English, Chinese or Malay (later renamed “national” and “national-type”), and the ultimate goal of making the Malay language the main medium of instruction.

Following the implementation of the Education Act 1961 and the National Language Act 1967, the school unification project picked up momentum. In 1968, the conversion of English-medium schools into Malay-medium began. A key mover was Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was the Education Minister from 1974 to 1978. By 1983, from primary level up to pre-university, all public schools except Chinese and Tamil-medium schools used Malay as the medium of instruction (see Table 1).

Meanwhile, the Chinese and Tamil-medium schools suffered deliberate negligence, the means meant to accelerate their decline. Under the Seventh Malaysia Plan (MP), when the Education Minister was Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the allocation per student for Malay-medium primary schools was RM482.64. This was 11 times that for Chinese-medium schools and 4.5 times that for Tamil-medium ones. (see Table 1). These schools also suffered from inadequate teacher supply. Furthermore, except as a pre-election concession, no new Chinese and Tamil schools were allowed to be built. They could only be closed down.

In the true spirit of the Holgate and Razak Reports, the number of Malay-medium primary schools rose by 36% from 4,277 in 1970 to 5,826 in 2010, while the number of the Chinese-medium and Tamil-medium ones declined by 4.1% from 1,346 to 1,291 and by 20% from 657 to 523.

However, have all these deliberate efforts of official negligence helped make Malay-medium schools the “schools of choice” vis-a-vis their Chinese and Tamil counterparts?

The answer is unfortunately a stern “no”.

The official prohibition of new Chinese and Tamil-medium schools has only resulted in overcrowding in some top schools in these streams. Kuo Kuang Primary School in Johor Bahru for example has 5,000 students, incidentally creating traffic jams as thousands of parents ferry their children from afar.

Unless we are willing to go so far as to eliminate parental choice in education, such discrimination by the state will inevitably be defeated by market forces. The only difference that the state makes is the price of distorting the market, and worsening traffic jams.

The recently released Education Blueprint lamented that our primary schools have become more homogeneous, with the number of ethnic Chinese students going to Chinese-medium schools increasing from 92% in 2000 to 96% in 2011 and that of ethnic Indian students going to Tamil-medium schools from 47% to 56%. Even the most marginalised and generally under-performing Tamil-medium schools are becoming more attractive to Indians.

Put in a historical context: In 1972, 83% of Malay students went to Malay-medium schools, while only 75% of Chinese students and 51% of Indian students went to Chinese-medium and Tamil-medium schools respectively.

Our education officials often say that our schooling environment has become less diverse and more divisive because the state's schools of choice, the Malay-medium national schools, are heavily mono-ethnic, with 94% of the students being ethnic Bumiputera.

Most multi-ethnic

What no official report highlights is that of the three streams, the Chinese-medium schools have become the most national in their student demographic profile; as many as 13% of their students are non-Chinese, compared to only six per cent non-Bumiputeras in the Malay-medium schools and less than one per cent non-Indians in the Tamil-medium ones.

While we have no definite data on the matter, you can be sure that the student demographic profile of the mushrooming English-medium private schools and international schools is even more ethnically diverse than that of the Chinese-medium schools. Like the English-medium schools in the past, ethnic mixing is well and alive in these private institutions. However, if in the past, students were attracted to English education because it offered them higher socioeconomic status, today’s students need to come from higher socioeconomic status to afford English education.

One may conclude that Abdul Razak's dream of nation-building through monolingual schooling in the Malay language is dead. If our goal is genuinely about desegregation of students of different ethnicities, then either we should allow different education streams to exist and compete against each other, or we should give up Malay as the sole medium of instruction.

Educational decline

The growing exodus of students from state schools to private schools (including international schools) or from the state-preferred Malay-medium schools to the state-marginalised schools within the state school system indicates the chronic decline of Malaysia's education system in general.

In the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2009 exercise, Malaysia ranked between 52nd and 55th amongst 74 participating countries in reading, mathematics and science, lagging behind our neighbours Singapore and Thailand which ranked 2nd-5th and 51st-53rd respectively. Our 15-year-olds are performing as if they have had three to four years' less schooling than their peers in Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Nearly 60% of Malaysian students sampled failed the minimum benchmark in mathematics and more than 40% of them failed it in reading and science.

In a separate assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Malaysian students' performance in science and mathematics in 2007 was in both cases below the international average. Only four per cent and three per cent of Malaysian students sampled met the advanced benchmark, compared to respectively 31%-40% and 10%-32% amongst students from Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

And it’s not because of an underinvestment in educational resources, at least certainly not in human resources. While Chinese and Tamil-medium schools often suffer from a shortage of teachers, we actually have an abundant supply of teachers overall. In 2010, Malaysia registered a student-teacher ratio of 12.3 and 13 for primary schools and secondary schools respectively, similar to high income and OECD countries and much higher than the Asean average, which is more than 20.

The Education Blueprint has proposed a package of 11 shifts to revamp Malaysian education:

1. Provide equal access to quality education of an international standard

2. Ensure every child is proficient in Bahasa Malaysia and English language

3. Develop values-driven Malaysians

4. Transform teaching into the profession of choice

5. Ensure high-performing school leaders in every school

6. Empower the state and district education departments (PPNs and JPDs) and schools to customise solutions based on need

7. Leverage ICT to scale up quality learning across Malaysia

8. Transform ministry delivery capabilities and capacity

9. Partner with parents, community and private sector at scale

10. Maximise student outcomes for every ringgit

11. Increase transparency for direct public accountability

All these are well and good, but how many of these broad directions have already appeared – albeit in different expressions – in the policy documents under previous education ministers? What is really new here? And if we are not doing something different, how can we expect to have a different outcome?

Elephant in the room

The fact is that our education system is excessively centralised, which stifles competition. None is more pronounced than the fixation to make the national primary and secondary “schools of choice” for all parents a key goal in the Wave 3 (2021-2025) of the Education Blueprint.

The question is, what does the federal government have to do before these schools can improve enough to be the voluntary “choice” of parents? What is the government's policy towards the rivals of the Malay-medium schools before 2021? Do you continue to marginalise the Chinese and Tamil-medium schools by denying them adequate funding, teacher supply and permission to build new schools? If you treat them fairly, the danger is that they may advance faster than the Malay-medium schools. How then can the latter be the “schools of choice” as desired by the government?

And what do you do for middle class parents across ethnic lines who want the revival of English-medium schools, as represented by Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim and her vocal Parents Action Group for Education (Page)? By 2021, most of their children will have gone to university.

Fantasies debunked

Why must we have a singular type of state schools, whether it is Malay or English-medium or both? Let us attempt for some politically incorrect honesty rather than politically correct fantasies.

Firstly, what threatens the so-called national unity in Malaya/Malaysia is not the mere fact that people speak different languages; rather, the fact that people who speak different languages have markedly different prospect of social upward mobility is the real problem. In 1947, many Malay-educated Malays opposed the British plan to set up a university because it would only further marginalise the community since most Malays were not educated even at secondary level. The idea was, however, welcomed by the English-speaking Malay elite who looked forward to the prospect of self-government.

The Malay fear of marginalisation by higher education was completely justified. A 1971 report on University of Malaya from the National Operations Council revealed a shocking ethnic gap: in 1959-1960, Malays made up only 19% of the student population, compared to the Chinese, for example, who made up 61%. And out of 62 Malay students, only three read sciences and one studied engineering. By 1969-1970, the Malay percentage had risen to 36% but 62% of them were in Arts. In this sense, expansion of Malaymedium schools was politically necessary to give the Malays a head start.

Secondly, inter-ethnic unity can be forged by any language that inclusively accords its speakers a brighter prospect of social upward mobility. This is why most Englisheducated people feel a strong bond with their schoolmates from other ethnic backgrounds. The English language was an entry ticket to the middle and upper class world, and the English-educated Malays, Chinese and Indians found themselves on the same side of the class divide. This fraternity might not have existed if everyone was educated in English and the ethnic-class rivalry in society at large was to be reproduced within the walls of Englishmedium schools.

This also explains why the Malay-medium national schools after 1970 failed to integrate its students the way the English-medium schools did. While a superb command of English would ensure one's rise in the colonial era, fluency in Malay might not be enough to open all doors for a non-Malay in the post- 1969 Malaysia.

The simple truth is we need neither a singlestream education nor Malay as the sole medium of instruction. What we really need to worry about is not the prima facie ethnic polarising in our multi-stream educations, but the class-polarising effect of education when quality education is no longer free.

A 25-member coalition of multi-ethnic NGOs, Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia, has rightly called for the blueprint to recognise all streams of schools as “national schools” and pay real attention to slow learners and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Class cover

As a matter of fact, a uniform education system is more likely to cover up class nuances. Unfortunately often overlooked, mother tongue education has a strong class implication. It facilitates learning and parental guidance at the lowest cost, while learning in a second language often requires more resources and support, where disadvantaged children often lose out.

In 2003, Mahathir, in his final year as Prime Minister, abruptly introduced the Teaching Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI) programme to all schools, in spite of protests from all non-English speaking communities. Earlier this year, the government decided to abolish the programme amidst objection and support from many parties. Both a blanket implementation, and then abolition, of the PPSMI are bad policy moves. The policy only lands many disadvantaged or slow-learning children, especially in rural areas, in poor mastery of these two subjects. They may speak slightly better English but that is unlikely to be enough to get them good, high-paying jobs. While their children may grow up in a more conducive environment to learn English and do the catching up, they would have been first made the sacrificial lamb.

We should therefore allow the children of Noor Azimah and her Page colleagues to study in English-medium schools, instead of restoring PPSMI across the board. After all, English is also the mother tongue of many Malaysians of middle class background or Eurasian heritage.

The economic value of the language would make English-medium schools grow quickly and these schools may even end up becoming the largest stream. The Malay, Chinese and Tamil-medium schools would have to improve to fight dwindling enrolment. All schools including the English-medium ones should eventually position themselves as special schools for those who learn better in these languages or simply prefer to do so, to produce graduates with better command of these languages, as needed by society and the market. Their enrolment should therefore be decided by choice of family and market, rather than state.

But would this lead to national disunity?

Multi-stream education in the colonial era failed because it ignored class contradictions. While English education brought the elite from various ethnic groups together, their cousins in the lower socioeconomic strata and learning in various ethnic tongues felt alienated by their bleak future and turned to ethno-linguistic nationalism.

To avoid repeating the same mistake, the government must respect the free market in the provision of education and at the same time actively support the weaker players – at all levels of stream, school and student – to not only survive but catch up.

Our education policy so far, including the blueprint, is of a paradigm that believes in control rather than competition, and makes multilingualism a bogeyman in its reluctance to deal with the class implication of education.

We must really shift from this to embrace competition and diversity, and pursue social inclusion, the real guarantee of national cohesion.

A political scientist by training, Wong Chin Huat is a fellow at the Penang Institute and a Bersih 2.0 steering committee member. One of his recent hobbies is walking on the streets without notifying the police.

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