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An integrated Malaysian educational system

I don’t normally do Malaysian politics, but education is something I feel strongly about.

In Malaysiakini, Mukhriz is reported as saying:
"The government can foster greater unity by streamlining all the schools under one education system where the medium of teaching, besides Science and Mathematics, are taught in Bahasa Malaysia.

"We can make it compulsory that the Chinese and Indians study their own language in their mother tongue while these two languages can be optional for Malay students to learn or we can make it compulsory for students to learn at least three languages," he suggested. (Malaysiakini)

I have to say that I find myself agreeing with him, in principle. This is based on my experience in a European School in Luxembourg (this one), from age 4-16.

The European School system
The European Schools are for the children of European Civil Servants from all the countries of the EU; we were in different sections according to our mother tongue, but from six years old onwards, we had to learn a second language – I think it was one class every day. I did French, and in my French class there were Italians, Germans, Danish, etc; the teacher spoke only in French and we all had to speak in French in the class. When we got to 3rd grade primary (age 8), we started an afternoon arts and crafts lesson on Wednesday in French – meaning the class was conducted entirely in French and – once again – I shared the class with Dutch, Germans, etc. During all this time, I also mixed with other kids in the playground, in the school bus, etc, and we had a common language most of the time.

Later, in Secondary (age 11), I started doing gym classes in French (same principle, sharing with others doing the same second language); and we also started History and Geography in French from year 3 (age 13). Later again, we did Economics in French. I also did a third language from year 2 or 3 (I did Italian), and also started a fourth language at about year 4.

What this meant was I became fluent in French from a relatively early age, and could use it in contexts outside of a language class; it also meant that I regularly mixed with children of the other nationalities, and we shared common experiences (such as annoying the teachers ;-)). However, none of us was denied an education in our own language too, and most of us became proficient in two or three languages (some even more). Having an extra language always helped me later when looking for a job. For me, growing up in such a school, mixing with other cultures and respecting their differences was never an issue – it just came naturally.

An Integrated Malaysian educational system
So – how could this be transmitted to Malaysia? Well, many people here speak two or three languages as a matter of course, but not always very proficiently (i.e. being able to write well, speak formally, etc.). The right of the Chinese and Indian minorities to have their own vernacular education was an essential part of the post-independence agreements, and I think language is an essential part of any culture, and Malaysia would be the poorer for not having the cultural diversity it does. But, there is inefficiency in the system – for example some Chinese students do primary in Chinese and have to do more work (dual curriculum or something, not sure of the details), then switch to BM and may have to do some catching up there - WW had to do an extra year because of this, but I think that rule has stopped now.

I think there should be a system that goes something like this. All kids do the same curriculum in the same schools: however, there are three main languages used – BM, Mandarin, and Tamil; a core of subjects will be done in BM (I’m not sure what Primary kids have as classes, but I guess Maths, Social Studies, stuff like that). Each child gets an hour a day in their mother tongue (reading, writing), and an hour a day in their chosen second language (e.g. a Malay does Mandarin or Tamil, an Indian does BM or Mandarin, etc.). Language classes also include aspects of culture –a bit of history, songs, fairy tales, etc. In practice, the non-Malay students may have to do BM as a second language in order to be able to do the other core courses. Children whose mother tongue is English will have to choose one of the other ones, I suppose.

If this works well, by the time the children are 10-11, they are proficient in BM, and in another language; they have had exposure to the other ethnic groups’ language and culture, and had to sit together, play together, eat together, with children of other ethnicities. Importantly, although there is a bias in favour of BM, everyone has had to learn a second language, and so no-one feels particularly disadvantaged.

At this point, they all have to start learning English so as to be able to so the science and maths in English (which is a good idea, I think). They also continue their second language, and have the option of a fourth language (Mandarin or Tamil) if they want to. By the time they finish, in theory, each student has BM and English, as well as either Mandarin or Tamil; in practice, Mandarin would probably be more popular than Tamil; so, after ten years or so, there would be a whole generation of Malaysian children proficient in BM, English and Mandarin or Tamil – imagine how this would benefit Malaysia in terms of international competitiveness!

It would also prevent those ‘dark corners’ of language, where – for example – in an office Indians use Tamil to speak amongst each other and others feel excluded. It would also mean that people cannot use that excuse of language to not employ people who don’t speak Chinese – for example. In addition, most people can understand newspapers/TV/websites in different languages, so politicians can’t get away with giving different messages in different media.

I would also start school earlier at six, and have government-run pre-schools (ages 4-6) that also start teaching some multi-lingual skills already.

Not perfect
Of course it’s not perfect. Dialects would not be included. Orang Asli and Asal languages should ideally be included somehow. Non-Tamil speaking Indians are ignored. English mother-tongue schoolchildren would be somewhat disadvantaged at first (but later on would have an advantage). It may be difficult to get suitable teachers, especially in predominantly Malay, rural areas.

But really, it’s said that the first two years are the most important for a child’s character; and I’d say that the first eleven years are crucial for the formation of a child’s social habits. If a child is in a mono-ethnic environment for those years, I think it can only diminish the chance of an integrated society.

Well, that’s my five sen anyway, feel free to criticise or approve :-)


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britishasian on :

Hi there. Accidently stumbled upon your weblog when searching Asian etiquette. Your idea is good in principle. Though seems rather complicated, the logistics of offering such a system could be a possible nightmare. Yes I agree language and culture are what make Malaysians interesting and diverse. However by holding on to both, Malaysians of all backgrounds have not been able to evolve (into Malaysians) and fully integrate (though I should stress this is simply a personal observation). I feel the country would be better served by doing away with culturally affiliated schools, and teaching all pupils in BM. Cultural subjects could be incorporated from ages 5-6 years. This will instil an appreciation of the diversity here but an acceptance that all citizens are Malaysian through the common use of BM. English of course can be included as second language and older pupils eventually taught in English to ease the transition to higher education. Parents who feel very strongly attached to culture can (and I’m sure will) maintain their own language at home. One system, one people, with cultural diversity at home.

julian on :

Thanks for the thought-provoking comment :-)

I agree it would be complicated, but honestly the situation in Malaysia needs a complicated solution. You're right that, so far, a 'Malaysian' identity is still tenuous - and it is important to have one.

My proposal would do away with culturally affiliated schools, and put all children in the same school system; and there would be a bias towards BM as a common language. But everyone has to become proficient in at least one of the other languages. Everyone would share BM as a common language, as well as being able to often share another language too.

Forcing everyone to have education in BM alone, and not giving enough attention to the other languages, would just not be acceptable to a large amount of people. I don't think it is possible, or desirable. "Cultural diversity at home" suggests that the public sphere is to be a mono-ethnic space; although I'm sure you don't mean it like that, but it could lead to policies (such as happened in the past) where lion dances were banned (or almost banned, in the early eighties). It could also encourage ghettoisation.

My proposal (such as it is :-P), would involve the state system allowing more of the vernacular into the mainstream schools, and the vernacular system abandoning their exclusiveness. Necessary give-and-take on both sides.

britishasian on :

Hi Julian. Thanks for visiting my blog, though mine is not as thought provoking as yours. Some really interesting posts you have. I take your point; most solutions in Malaysia always seem to err on the side of complicated. The problem I see is that once such a system is implemented, its just takes a change in higher authority to reverse the decision. I accept your point of ghettos. It’s something that has always been a problem in the UK. The so-called 'ethnic minorities' for example, (first and second generation British Asians) are often found located in select areas (The East-End on London, Bradford, Southall etc). What’s to so say such ghettoism does not exist in Malaysia at present? Looking around at students in local universities, there are very clear lines of segregation between Malays and Malaysians of Chinese origin. Integration is rare and students often have to forced into 'mixed' groups. Just spent a couple days in Jakarta, and I could not tell the difference between Jakartans of Chinese origin and those who were indigenous. Why? Language. I was very surprised to hear Indonesians of Chinese origin conversing with each other in Indonesian.

The UK continues to have issues with regard to race, integration, and now religion of course. The current increase in Islamic schools for instance has been looked very unfavourably by some quarters due to the move away from a common education. Though I would agree the situation is not quite the same, most of problems experienced by other cultures in British society are due to language difficulties and an inability (or lack of desire) to integrate with white British Society. The key issue I feel is many confuse integration with assimilation. Being accepted as part of society should not mean a complete loss of cultural identity and language. Surely when one emigrates to another country (South Asians to the UK, or Chinese to Malaysia, self-motivated or Colonial enforced), some 'loss' (I like to use evolution) of culture must be expected.

Thanks for the interesting discussion.

julian on :

OK this discussion could go on a long time :-) and I don't want to start repeating myself.

Just a slight correction: I'm not saying that "most solutions in Malaysia always seem to err on the side of complicated" - what I'm saying that the Malaysian situation is quite unique and therefore needs a unique solution.

The main difference is that there is a large minority (30-40%) who have distinct and lasting cultural patterns which permeate the public and private spheres. This cannot be legislated away.

Yes cultures need to evolve, and everyone needs let go of some of their exclusiveness. Having an education system which prioritises BM, but makes sure everyone can speak at least one of the other main languages, would provide a solid base for the evolution of a Malaysian identity, one which can support Malaysia into a future where all citizens can know that they are equal, with equal responsiblities and duties, and equal rights.

britishasian on :

Hello again Julian. Yes this discussion could go on forever. I have to commend you on your passion.

My wife and I admitted our twin girls into a 'Malaysian Chinese' preschool a couple of years back. Our intention was to expose the twins to another language and culture at an early age. We found after a couple of months however the approach to formal education at the school (even for youngsters) was just not compatible with our (more open approach to learning). The twins often came home unhappy and exhausted, with vast amounts of 'homework'. A chat with the principle, who mentioned a demand for such strict learning methods from other parents, left me with no choice but to withdraw the girls, and accept failure of our attempt at cultural bridging.

julian on :

Hiya, sorry I didn't answer before - this message slipped down my inbox :-|

I guess "cultural bridging" is a life-long project that never ends, and can be done in many ways

I agree, the educational system here is not something I would necessarily recommend to anyone. All the more reason to have a comprehensive reform! :-P

Daddy Parenting Tips on :

My daughter is less than 2 years old and she can understand both English and Japanese, and later will introduce Malay, Mandarin and Cantonese.

I can't see why we cannot take 1 step forward to integrate the BM textbooks few years back with the current English science and maths text books. Its a lot of effort, but why move backward instead of forward. We can allow students to use either English or BM to answer in the exams as long as the maths and science principles are correct.

Some good will surely come out of the dialectics at work between both languages instead of choosing either one. We need new advancements. We need Malaysia Boleh. Not some power struggle between languages.

When will Malaysia advance and not hold on to race and language as stumbling blocks but embrace our differences as advantages?

julian on :

I agree that moving forward only makes sense. I pity all those teachers and school administrators who now have to undo all they've done in the last five years. Not to mention the students... Bilingualism is a benefit to all, and the earlier one starts, the better it is.

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