I used to have strong opinions about private education – in that I was against it. Maybe this was because of my social democratic leanings or because I was educated in government schools (although perhaps La Salle Petaling Jaya and the Malay College Kuala Kangsar are not your average national schools).
With the birth of our first child, Ilhan, however, my wife and I began to seriously talk about his education and his future—as all young parents do. Let me say here that we still plan to send him to a national school.
We believe that he will ultimately benefit from the experience and also that whatever money we would spend on a private school should instead be reserved for college and university, where the real learning in life begins.
We also know that we have to take charge in educating Ilhan, to chip into teaching him to read, write, speak, think and be a moral person. We realise that a child’s education is something parents need to actively contribute their time and effort (rather than just money) to, rather than abdicate it to the teachers and complain if things go wrong.
To be frank, it’s disgusting when ministers who shape Malaysia’s education policies send their children to foreign or private schools. How can they claim to know what’s best for our national schools when they don’t even send their children there?
But now, as a father, I understand why many ordinary Malaysian parents want a range of options – whether vernacular, private local, private Islamic or international schools—in which to send their children. Parents—and not bureaucrats or politicians—deserve to choose what they think is best for their children.
My own experience confirms this sentiment. Kolej Yayasan UEM, where I did my A-Levels is an independently-run college modelled on British public schools. Free from government interference, the quality of education in KYUEM is leaps and bounds over other institutions.
This debate is not confined to Malaysia. For instance, the Labour Party of the UK tried to create greater equality in British education by creating comprehensive schools where all students regardless of ability would go through the same system.
This approach was fiercely critiqued, and indeed such “one-size-fits-all” systems are similar to our national school system. The curriculum, administration and even architecture of national schools are alike, with little variation allowed.
While I believe the desire to have this uniformity was based on a valid desire to forge national unity, the results were far from satisfactory.
The reason why the UK’s comprehensive schools system was criticised was because it led more middle class parents (who were fearful of the effect lumping students together without regard to their abilities) to send their children to private schools. This meant that the educational gap in the UK has increased.
Ivor Roberts from Oxford University argued that while British politicians like to blame top British universities for not being inclusive towards students from socio-economically disadvantaged students, the real problem is the quality of comprehensive schools in Britain. Poor but bright students previously were able to flourish in government grammar schools that took the best and brightest students.
There are parallels to this with what’s going on in Malaysia. The deteriorating state of our national schools mean more parents are choosing to educate their children elsewhere. 90 per cent of Chinese parents send their children to vernacular schools, as are a growing number of Malays and Indians. Others enrol their children in private, international or Islamic schools. Some are even sending their children abroad, to Singapore or even further afield.
I am humbled by how hard these parents work, or the sacrifices they are willing to make to send their children to these schools: simply because they believe this is better for their children. Not all of them are the stereotypical rich parents but ordinary Malaysians. What makes it even more surprising is that these parents were often not educated in such schools themselves.
These parents expose the callousness of those who think that we can solve the problem of national unity and integration by simply shutting down vernacular schools. The latter seem all-too willing to run roughshod over other people’s rights to achieve their goals. Outlawing vernacular schools is not going to make the problem of racialism disappear overnight, and indeed will make Malaysia seem like it has no respect for freedom of choice.
My point is that we need to let parents choose which schools they want to send their children to. Whatever the stream, parents should be able to choose without any restrictions: provided of course they are able to bear the financial consequences. At the same time, these schools, as custodians of the nation’s youth, must also do their part to prepare them for citizenship—and that includes ensuring that their charges are fluent in the national language, aware of other cultures and able to function in such environments.
Liberalising our education system will really help draw back Malaysians abroad. The shoddy state of our education system is what’s holding them back. But in the long run, what’s most needed is a comprehensive revamp of our national schools. It’s still the only system that the vast majority of Malaysians attend.
Our national schools must become more inclusive and improve their academic standards. We should not worry about how many A’s our students score but real objective indicators: are they being educated to work and live in the real, globalised world? We must not let some “Little Napoleons” impose narrow racial or religious agendas in national schools.
The government should provide more autonomy to schools and allow special programs for bright students. But it should always be an open system where late bloomers who might not do well in primary school can catch up if and when they find their niche. Furthermore, greater leeway must be provided for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that it is fair for everyone.
As I mentioned in my book Moving Forward: Malays for the 21st Century, I accept that our divided educational system poses a major challenge for Malaysia. But as I wrote earlier it is a fantasy to think that a “one-school for all” approach will make things any better.
Its proponents are fond of citing Lee Kuan Yew’s closing of vernacular schools in Singapore. They forget however that he was able to do so only by making national schools the school of choice for everyone and only acted it when only a small minority of Singaporean parents were sending their children to vernacular schools. Also, do these people seriously think that such primordial authoritarianism is appropriate in this post-2008 Malaysia?
In Moving Forward I proposed the creation of a Unified Stream (as opposed to national or vernacular streams), that incorporates the best elements from national and vernacular schools. I believe some form of this idea is being explored by the government. My idea was that there would be sufficient space not only for the students to learn their mother tongue and cultural heritage, but to learn about the different cultures in the country as well as a stronger grounding in civic education.
Till then, my Ilhan will most likely attend a government school but as mentioned I hope to improve his experience by providing a good environment at home and supplementing it with various activities. My only hope is that he and Malaysian children like him will one day grow up as upstanding, decent and hardworking citizens serving a better country than we have now.