Abolishing the vernacular school system is not the solution

The statement released by the head of Armada Nasional Bersatu, Wan Ahmad Fayhsal reflects an elitist individual wishing to maintain a privileged position in the constitution by language policing. It does not reflect an individual that wishes to unite the citizens of Malaysia, even if Wan Fayhsal wishes to be portrayed as such. Even worse, his argument is detrimental to the discourse on plural society unity as he argued that the fluency in the national language reflects an individual’s patriotism. While Wan Fayhsal wants to give the impression of being knowledgable on this issue, in reality he is espousing a biased narrative that will not contribute progress towards national unity.

While we agree that any effort in forming a united plural society starts from the most primary level of education, the vernacular school system is an essential component of our plural society rather than a detriment to it. The vernacular school system has been embedded deeply within the tapestry of the Malaysian education system. It has been a means of cultural identity preservation just as how Islamic religious schools are a means to preserve and strengthen the Islamic religious identity of their students. Thus, to abolish the vernacular school system on the basis of the lack of national language fluency will be counterproductive in our efforts to strengthen our plural society. To take away a means of cultural preservation is to take away from what Malaysia is: a multiracial plural society tolerant of each others’ identities. Conformity of language fluency is not a magical solution for all for the problems of unity in Malaysia. Even if all the students within the education system are put under the same roof with the “jigsaw” classroom model, unity will still be out of reach as long as we do not reflect inward on the causes of disruptive discourses on unity.

Wan Fayhsal argues that language is the basis of unity and that the vernacular school system embraces differences in language usage which will under-prioritise the national language. He is speaking from a viewpoint of a politician that is playing on populist sentiment and not from the viewpoint of a statesman who values education. Education and language expert Sarah Gudschinsky posited that students’ fluency in their mother tongue can be transferred to a second language, thus improving their mastery of the second language. According to linguist Carol Eastman, native language usage will foster a good-home working relationship. Learning difficulties were also documented among minority children with an inadequate grasp of medium of instruction by multiple linguists such as C. Bowen and J. Macnamara.

Pemuda PSM wishes for a united Malaysia as well but unity should not be built on the basis of erasing the cultural identity of the minorities. Vernacular schools were not intended to be divisive but have only been portrayed as such by narratives spun by politicians . If education is the main concern in the development of a united plural society, Wan Fayhsal should have been concerned about the establishment of Islamic religious schools in Malaysia as the breeding ground for religious fundamentalism resulting in the decline of Malays’ cultural identities, even though we are the majority race. In relation to the education system itself, why should the vernacular school system be blamed for causing disunity when the tertiary education system allows for universities to prioritise only the majority race on the basis of affirmative action? Why should education be portrayed as a problem for our pluralistic society when it is individuals like Wan Fayhsal who freely stoke the flame of racial issues through racial politics?

It should have been obvious that Wan Fayhsal’s statement was built on weak foundations. The referencing of 1996 Education Act and the work of Prof. Dr. Teo Kok Seong is only to build a narrative on the vernacular school system that does not have any connection to the issue of unity in Malaysia. He is another player in the political arena seeking to project blame onto a system that is not within his capability to understand. Yet he cannot help but to cling onto this false narrative in order to gain pity points for his pathetic ambitions towards securing a position in Malaysia’s turbulent racially-driven politics.



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