Of vernacular schools, socks and red lines

KK CHAI and Teo Kok Seong have recently met the police to respond to separate reports against them: the former in relation to the socks issue and the latter on his video comments against vernacular education and the Chinese community.

The two issues have been dominating media and public attention for the past fortnight. Although unconnected, both share common features quite apart from their impact in stoking racial and religious division and inciting racial hate.

Firstly, they may be seen as a part of the clash between social groups for dominance of their ideals, beliefs and philosophies. In the West where cultural conflicts have been ongoing between liberal and conservative groups and relate to popular culture and diversity issues, here in Malaysia it has been extended to education, food, business and other sectors.

Earlier, cultural tussles in the country have been waged over the celebration of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Bon Odori, Oktoberfest, modes of dress wear and animal preference, among others. Such tussles may intensify racial and religious conflict.

But it also provides our politicians, the public and media the opportunity to put the subject matter under the magnifying glass if not microscope, and to find the antidotes or solutions to the controversies.

Secondly, a key development in these contestations is the use of social media. In both episodes, there is a reliance on social media and manipulation of the clickbait strategy to convey their messages to the public.

Although social media can be a channel to disseminate important and positive messages, including alternative views generally excluded from the mainstream media, it also can be used to provide misinformation and deceptive or fake allegations leading to confusion, distrust and worse.

Vernacular schools: The positives

Teo’s comments follow the Federal Court’s decision in support of a ruling by the Court of Appeal, which states that vernacular schools are constitutional, and recognises the use of Chinese and Tamil languages in vernacular schools or national-type schools as legal.

Critics of Teo’s comments have questioned his motive in demonising vernacular education and the Chinese community without providing evidence of scholarship to support his viewpoint.

Some have noted that his views echo those of extremist politicians and a few fellow academics. These advocates of assimilation are seen as the ones creating disunity by using the vernacular schools and similar “national unity” concerns as the scapegoat for the nation’s racial and religious problems.

The timing of this controversy is perfect for Teo and his supporters in the anti-vernacular school movement who are intent on responding against the most recent court decisions. They now have the golden opportunity to take his case beyond the courts to the academic community as well as to policymakers.

Hopefully, this can resolve the issue of the existence of SRJK (C) and (T) once and for all. Otherwise, it will continue to be a festering wound in our nation.

Teo’s research on vernacular education and schools

So far, Teo’s writing on the subject of vernacular education has mainly appeared in the Malay media. His research work on the subject is scanty. Without well-designed social science tools and empirical research to back it up, it may appear that he has relied on hearsay and his own as well as the bias of his circle of friends and academic associates to arrive at his conclusions on education and race relations.

Interested parties such as the Islamic Education Development Council and the Confederation of Malaysian Writers Association which contested the Court of Appeal’s ruling; and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, the National Association of Professors and Institut Kajian Etnik, with which Teo is associated, can play a key role in Teo’s defence by publicising his work as well as by organising forums and workshops in relation to the subject of vernacular education and national unity.

Besides taking into account the views of the Chinese community, the position of other stakeholders, especially the more than 100,000 non-Chinese children enrolled in the nearly 2,000 SRJKCs and SRJKT (and the families) must be given weight.

Since independence, several million Malaysians, including a considerable number of non-Chinese and non-Indians, have graduated from vernacular schools. There is no evidence that the schools comprise a disunifying force or that they have bred “arrogance” or a sense of racial superiority.

Today, the continuing enrolment of Malay, non-Chinese and non-Indian students in the vernacular schools despite the massive propaganda campaign against these schools is irrefutable proof of the public confidence in the quality of these schools and the belief that SRJKCs and SRJKTs provide superior and non-racist schooling to their children than is available from the SJKs.

Testimonies of the positive role that vernacular schools have played in the lives and careers of non-Chinese members of our society have appeared in many places. Independent research can validate or refute the praise that these schools have received in being the educational foundation for the success of their students.

The Education Ministry would do well to support and encourage the development of the SRJKs. In particular, the multilingual and multicultural skills and mindsets provided by these schools are extraordinary and distinctive. They may be regarded as exceptional in the Asian region. They are critical for the human resources they provide to the nation’s economy and society in taking on regional and global economic challenges.

Moving beyond controversy

Achieving a secure, confident and inclusive nation will never come about when any community in the country has its attention taken up with and focused on the recent controversies that have garnered so much public and media attention. Such conflicts distract all of us from dealing with the far more serious issues of educational and economic reform and the lagging economy.

Lim Teck Ghee’s Another Take is aimed at demystifying social orthodoxy.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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