KUALA LUMPUR: While an Umno minister reignites communal feelings with his call for a boycott of Chinese businesses to force down prices of goods, Malay parents are sending their children to Chinese schools out of preference for the quality of education there — an illustration of how race in Malaysia so often obscures substantive concerns.
One such parent is homemaker Rozitah Kanak, who travels 30km daily, back and forth to send her two sons to a Chinese school in Klang, as she finds that the teachers’ concern and personal attention given to her boys’ studies make up for the time spent on the road.
“The teachers even WhatsApp me to ask about my children’s progress with their schoolwork. They take full initiative,” said the 38-year-old mother whose younger child, a girl, is also in a Chinese kindergarten.
The politics of Chinese vernacular schools is frequently debated. They are blamed for impeding national unity and accused of spreading anti-government sentiments by conservative Malay groups and by some in the ruling coalition’s lead party, Umno.
But those who advocate closing these schools in favour of single-stream education to foster national unity rarely address a basic issue — parents are simply concerned over the lack of quality of education in public schools.
Reportedly, 10% of the more than 600,000 pupils in Chinese schools are Malay. A letter written to The Sun newspaper last year put the figure at 80,000 Malay children.
Additionally, parents interviewed by The Malaysian Insider believed Mandarin as a third language was important for their children’s future careers. And instead of hindering national unity, they felt knowing an extra language could foster integration.
Cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon Dr Raja Amin Raja Mokhtar, 52, sends four of his five children to Chinese schools, known here as Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina (SJKC), as he believes that mastering Mandarin will help them in the future.
“I see that many Malay boys only know two languages, [namely] Malay and English. So why not send my children to Chinese school to learn another language,” said the senior consultant at the University Malaya Medical Centre.
His boys attend SJKC Fon Yew (2) in Johor and SJKC Puay Chai in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
The teachers displayed high levels of commitment, professionalism and dedication to the students, he said. And they found ways to make a challenging subject like mathematics easy to understand, he added.
“There is strict discipline; every day my children have homework and they know they have to finish it because the teachers are resolute,” he said.
As Malays and a minority in Chinese school, Dr Raja Amin said his children had not experienced any form of discrimination because of their race whether from [their] teachers or peers. If they were weak in any subject, there was also someone to help them.
“They never underestimated Malays. If our children perform well, they will be impressed and proud,” he said.
Neither has attending a Chinese school posed problems to practising their Islamic faith. The children are allowed to go for Friday prayers and religious classes, and when it comes to eating in the school canteen, it is an opportunity for them to learn what is halal.
One drawback, however, is his children’s weakness in their mother tongue — Bahasa Malaysia — as Mandarin is fully used in school.
But Dr Raja Amin said this should not be politicised because similar problems also happened to students who are weak in English at national schools, where Bahasa Malaysia is the medium.
“Don’t politicise education. The problem is not vernacular schools. Many other parents send their children to private schools because they are not satisfied with national schools.”
In the Malay heartland state of Terengganu, Fatimah, 54, said there was no reason to close Chinese schools as they have never made her children “less Muslim, and at the same time, they gave her children the advantage of learning Mandarin”.
“There are no problems learning, socialising, making friends and eating… and when other pupils go for Moral classes, Muslim students will go for religious classes,” said the mother of eight who sends four of her children to SRJKC Chung Hwa Wei Sin in Kuala Terengganu.
There was more homework in Chinese schools, but Fatimah said this had taught her children to be quicker in understanding and be more focused because of the many exercises they had to complete daily.
They also seemed to be quicker in learning English, compared with her other children at national schools where Bahasa Malaysia is the medium of instruction.
Still, among some there appears to be a stigma attached to being Malay and sending one’s children to Chinese school, and Fatimah, who only wanted to be known by that name, said she did not want people from her village to know that she had chosen not to send her children to national schools.
Rozitah, who makes the daily 30km trip to SRJKC Kong Hoe in Klang for her two sons, and whose younger daughter is in a Chinese kindergarten, said her children had been learning in Mandarin since they were four.
She said at their young age, academic performance was not the main priority but more important was their exposure to a third language and the opportunity to master it.
Starting them young in Mandarin at preschool was also important if the intention was to send them to a Chinese school later, to prevent “culture shock”.
“Make sure they get early exposure to ensure they will not be surprised because Chinese schools do give a lot of homework. When they are used to it from preschool, they will not suffer a culture shock when they get into Standard One,” Rozitah said.
That Chinese schools are a first choice for some Malay parents is a good sign, said DAP politician and Selangor assemblyman, Ng Suee Lim. It is in line with current economic developments, where China is seen as a dominant player.
“China in the next 10 to 20 years will be the world’s largest economy. This is a fact, so those who have the advantage can grab job opportunities,” he said.
But he acknowledged the problems faced by students who had to switch to learning in Bahasa Malaysia when they began studying it at secondary national schools.
He added that Chinese primary schools should not be blamed for the decline in Bahasa Malaysia proficiency, and said it was Malay pressure groups that were manipulating and politicising the issue. — The Malaysian Insider
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on February 5, 2015.