Is there such a historical consensus, as Muhyiddin Yassin insists vehemently, that there would be no more Chinese independent schools in Malaysia?
This question is immaterial. In this country, the federal constitution has been amended umpteen times and even trampled on so that Umno dominance could be ensured, hence the truculent desire to regain a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
If laws can be disregarded and even abused, why can’t a mere consensus that is without any legal or constitutional basis be disposed of to make way for something that may be beneficial to the nation?
After all, Malaysia was first founded as a secular state, but the country has witnessed increased Islamicisation over the years, with no end in sight. It would therefore be utterly unfair if one blames racial disunity solely on the existence of the vernacular schools, as Mahathir Mohamad so arbitrarily and irresponsibly does.
I am a product of Chinese education in Malaysia, and would be quick to attribute Foon Yew High School in Johor Baru – along with others – for nurturing my growth as a person. In particular, I am grateful to Cikgu Mariam who had taught the Malay language and culture faithfully to the students for more than three decades. It was not an easy task when one considers the purely Chinese-speaking environment.
The more I look back, the more I agree with Henry Adams, an American educator, that a teacher affects eternally; he/she can never tell where his/her influence stops’.
This is certainly the case with Cikgu Mariam. My respect for and interest in Malay culture would probably have been halved without her.
However, under Umno hegemony, non-Malays, as well as non-Umno Malays, are perpetually perceived as less patriotic, with their commitment to nation-building under the closest scrutiny.
In the name of fighting terrorism and forging national unity, Mahathir in 2003 resorted to clamping down on religious schools sponsored by PAS or other non-Umno Muslim groups. One should therefore not be surprised by the strong antagonism on the part of PAS supporters against the senile old man.
While Mahathir’s argument that the religious schools were being used by certain quarters to sow hatred against the government was valid to some extent, the same can be said of Umno which has turned national schools into a gigantic and horribly effective brainwashing machine!
Regarded as ‘less Malaysian’
Then again I must say among the non-Malays, those who have gone to a Chinese or a Tamil school are often regarded as ‘less Malaysian’ for the simplistic and erroneous reason that these schools ‘reinforce the racial divide’.
In other words, a Malaysian who has gone to a vernacular or an independent Chinese school is required to work doubly or even triply hard to prove his/her ‘Malaysian credentials’, although many of them have contributed no less than any other Malaysians even in terms of paying taxes.
Paradoxically, for all their pretense to safeguard national culture and language, neither Najib Abdul Razak nor Hishammuddin Hussein was educated locally, and I am certain they don’t send their children to a national school either. So why is Muhyddin not questioning the loyalty of his cabinet colleagues to the country?
If Umno and other BN parties are so obsessed with national education, perhaps they should pass a law that all state assemblypersons, parliamentarians and cabinet ministers – as well as heads of government-linked companies (GLCs) – must have attended a national school. But they will not do so because the first to resign would be Najib and Hishammuddin!
People are encouraged to speak a common language for understanding, yes, and we have been doing this for years. Still, having more non-Malay language schools may not necessarily undermine national solidarity.
In some way, religious and ethnic diversity policies are made scapegoats because of our excessive fascination with the Singaporean model when it comes to nation-building.
Truth be told, it irks me whenever others cite Singapore as a success story: high growth, efficient economy and one language. Ask the Malays there how they feel about the erosion of the Malay language under the People’s Action Party. The fact is: the standard of Chinese and Malay has dropped drastically on Lee Kuan Yew’s watch!
This is not to deny the fact Singapore is a flourishing economy, but not to be missed out are the examples of other countries that are doing equally well – or even better – while promoting multiculturalism: Canada, Sweden and Switzerland spring to mind.
The Swiss may speak German, French, Italian or Romansh, but no-one is a lesser Swiss because of that. Most importantly, they at the same time tend to speak far better English than an average Singaporean or Malaysian!
Can we talk more about the Swiss alternative rather than the ‘Singapore miracle’ that is achieved with authoritarianism and suppression of mother-tongue education?
In 1991, Mahathir promulgated his Vision 2020 for the country. Since then, a disproportionate chunk of national resources has been channeled to mega-infrastructure and fanciful projects, enriching most of his cronies and entrenching the culture of corruption along the way.
Dream of unity remains elusive
More than two decades later, the dream of national unity remains elusive while Malaysia is becoming fragmented as never before. The chief culprit? Not religious or vernacular schools, but greedy and selfish ruling and business elites whose needs can never be satisfied. Growing inequality and the widening income gap are dividing our society, making the poor angry, the rich anxious and everyone else more suspicious of each other.
And we have all been taken for a ride by the false promise of Vision 2020, through which Mahathir and his cohorts were highly successfully in consolidating their powers and accumulating their ill-gotten wealth, a tradition that has been duly followed by their successors.
In retrospect, if we were to adhere to the broken vision of ‘one people, one language and one Malaysia’, rather than exploring other more sustainable models, the powers-that-be – and these could include a future government made up of PAS – would sooner or later add one more condition, one religion that is.
Anyone who is ill at ease with this scenario is therefore duty-bound to defend the constitutional Malaysia that is multiracial, multireligious and multicultural, and one way to start fighting is to argue the case for religious and vernacular education.
Trust me, this country is big and generous enough to include everyone. And I promise I won’t be jealous or outraged even if you speak wonderful Javanese or excellent Shakespearean English although I may not understand a word of it.
It is either now or never. Period.
JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.
First published in malaysiakini.com