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The growing preference for Chinese schools in Malaysia

They focus on core education that offers better career opportunities in Malaysia and abroad
A boy holds onto his mother as he attends his first day of elementary school in standard one (primary one) at a local school, at the start of the new school year in Karak, in Malaysia's Pahang state on March 21, 2022.

A boy holds onto his mother as he attends his first day of elementary school in standard one (primary one) at a local school, at the start of the new school year in Karak, in Malaysia's Pahang state on March 21, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 30, 2024 04:02 AM GMT
Updated: March 30, 2024 04:03 AM GMT

A tiny Chinese medium school in rural Malaysia set a record of sorts when all 20 students it admitted for year one classes starting on March 11 were Malays.

Malays have been outnumbering the Chinese in the Chi Sin National-Type Primary Chinese School as evident from its previous intakes. But this was the first time the intake was all-Malay. There are only four ethnic Chinese out of a total of 66 students in the school in Bahau, about 125 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur.

However, this is not the only Chinese medium school in Malaysia where Malays are in the majority. In 2021, another rural school with 42 students was reported to have 27 Malays as opposed to 12 Chinese and three Indians. There are likely to be many more such schools.

Malays form about 16 percent of the students in Chinese medium national-type primary schools. It was 9 percent in 2010.

National-type primary schools, where the medium of instruction is either Mandarin or Tamil, are partially funded by the government while national schools, where lessons are imparted in Malay, are fully funded by the government.

The national schools are where most Malaysian children study. However, an increasing number of students from other ethnic groups are making a beeline for Chinese medium schools.

"The poor quality of education in national schools is one of the factors driving students away"

The student population in Chinese primary schools throughout Malaysia is almost 500,000 or about 18 percent of the total student population for all public primary schools in the country.

The poor quality of education in national schools is one of the factors driving students away. Much of their timetable is dedicated to Islamic studies for Muslim students and moral studies for non-Muslim ones. This is often cited as one of the reasons for the continuing decline in student performance.

In contrast, Chinese schools pay greater attention to core subjects like Maths and Science while also offering students the opportunity to master a third language — Mandarin — that opens numerous career opportunities for them in Malaysia and overseas.

Despite limited funds from the government, Chinese schools offer better facilities. Photos of newly constructed luxurious washrooms funded by public donations in a Chinese school went viral recently.

The Chinese community regards schools as vital to preserving and furthering their cultural and linguistic identity. Many of the schools are supported by the community itself and also corporations like a brewery company that reportedly raised US$4.2 million.

Also, it’s tough to get government approval for Chinese language schools despite a growing demand due to overcrowding in the existing ones. Ten new schools were approved in 2017, but to date, only one has been built.

"It is the national schools that are accused of practicing intolerance towards minority races"

Critics say the government shouldn’t allow more Chinese schools as they do little to cultivate national identity and instead promote their own culture.

But supporters, especially parents, vouch for the cross-cultural experiences gained by students in Chinese schools. It is the national schools that are accused of practicing intolerance towards minority races.

Almost 95 percent of students enrolled in national schools are Malays, hence the minority races get disregarded like during Ramadan when some schools shut their canteens as a mark of respect for the fasting month.

This not only means non-Muslim students have no access to the canteen, but they are not even allowed to sit there and eat food brought from home. In 2013, it was reported that non-Muslim students were forced to eat inside storerooms, closets, and even toilets, causing a public furor.

This year the education ministry directed all school canteens to remain open, much to the annoyance of Muslim conservatives.

In contrast, a recent photo of a Chinese girl holding the hand of a Malay girl with first-day jitters won the hearts of many Malaysians. The mother of the Malay girl had dropped her off at the school and the Chinese girl who was passing by took the Malay girl by her hand and comforted her as she led her to the classroom.

"It is hard to accept that the national schools are gradually ceding ground to non-Malay language schools"

There was a flood of comments from all races saying this is how it ought to be in schools.

Even Malay parents commented on social media that they want their children to grow up in multi-ethnic Chinese schools rather than the insular national Malay-medium schools.

For years, Malay-Muslim conservatives have been proposing that non-Malay language schools be abolished and there be a single school system with Malay as the medium for teaching.

The latest demand came from a leader of the United Malay National Organisation on March 6. The irony was the party’s secretary-general had enrolled his children in a Chinese school.

Some groups even tried approaching the courts to abolish non-Malay language schools but failed as the Federal Constitution protects them. Chinese and Tamil schools have existed even before independence.

For the Malay nationalists and Muslim conservatives, it is hard to accept that the national schools are gradually ceding ground to non-Malay language schools. What is even harder to accept is Malay parents becoming advocates of Chinese schools.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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