One aspect always brought up when talking about unity and nation-building is single-stream schooling. Vernacular schools, religious schools and, to an extent, independent schools are often touted to be an important reason why there exists a separation of races in Malaysia.

The Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin recently when asked about moving towards a single national school system without vernacular schools pointed out that if we are talking about a racial divide, Malay-dominated residential schools like SBPs have to go as well. Putting this towards his audience, he went on to ask if Malaysians are really ready for that.

It is a subtle yet profound form of sophistry to put forth such a false dichotomy. Either all types of schools stay or SBPs will have to close, when put in such a straightforward form, looks like a ridiculous statement.

It does not address the actual problem of racial division and how to take care it, rather reduces everything to a conclusion of inaction as the alternative seems to be a dead-end.

Even more worrying is the lack of pointing out that the main purpose of schools is to provide education of a high quality such as to produce students who have the capabilities to realise their goals effectively. It is only a secondary goal of schools to foster community building and strengthening unity.

If we analyse the main purpose of schools, there seems to be a growing section of parents, especially urbanites, who are beginning to turn towards private schools as they distrust the quality of education in national schools.

This sentiment seems to hold some water. According to Nina Adlan Disney, the CEO of Asia Pacific School, the private school system is superior in the areas of financing, effective pedagogy and syllabus, helpful internal policies and the autonomy and independence to decide their own staffing needs.

Similar sentiments present themselves in parents who do send their children to vernacular schools. Year after year, more non-Chinese families are sending their children to Chinese schools as they feel the quality of education is better there compared to SKs and SMKs.

Moreover, the increasing religiosity, focus on one-race dominated administration and poor maintenance of infrastructure pushes non-Bumiputeras away from national schools. In fact, it has been reported that only 4 per cent of those who enrolled in national schools are non-Bumis, yet those who opt to send their children to Chinese or private schools say that if the quality of education was to improve in national schools, they would gladly send their children there instead.

The fact is YB KJ has a point. It is true that the racial demographic of residential schools are predominantly Malay. In fact, this demographic is true in most national schools. Simply doing away with vernacular schools would not solve the underlying issues that parents have with national schools.

However, he did not offer alternatives, or point out the government’s steps to remedy racial segregation in schools. All issues that need to be addressed get swept under the rug under the guise of defending vernacular schools. Proactive measures to solve issues are conveniently forgotten.

What we have to face is the fact that national schools need a lot of work to be competitive with other school systems and parents are not going to be happy if the government is going to make it almost unavoidable for their children to be schooled in a subpar system.

Moreover, even national schools themselves are often made up of students who segregate themselves on a racial basis. The problem is not really with vernacular schools, it is with national schools.

With this being said, it is also easy to notice how difficult coping with a shift in language is for those from vernacular schools who transition to national schools. There is also debilitating awkwardness for those who were used to an environment dominated by a particular race who have to get used to a multiracial climate.

At this juncture, it is often observed that this will create tribes of races coexisting separate from each other, further disparaging unity. This is not just among vernacular school students as well, those from agama schools and similar one-race dominated schools suffer just the same.

What we need now is a school system that is of a high quality, autonomous, rewards merit, sensitive to the disadvantages faced by certain students and less religious. We need teachers who will teach in an unbiased manner, with properly maintained facilities and such that races can truly mix well.

Empty rhetoric that this is an easy problem to solve does not help, nor does just acknowledging the difficulty of the issue yet doing nominal things about it.

What we need is politicians who will actually be proactive to commission research on difficult issues, listen to civil societies like IDEAS when they do recommend solutions and carry them out without worrying too much about the uproar. Was there no uproar when GST was established? The government ran with it regardless as it was a better tax than the SST.

This proves that politicians can be proactive when they want to be. It is our duty as Malaysians to not be so easily swayed by empty rhetoric and actually act to force their hand to be more proactive.

* Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan is the Founder and Chief Coordinator of #Liberasi. This article was first published in the Malay Mail Online on the 25th of July 2017.

By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

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