Dr M: Vernacular schools stand in the way of national unity

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 25 – The existence of vernacular schools has been a stumbling block to national unity, according toTun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The frank admission by the prime minister came during an event where he met some of the Malaysians working or studying in Bangkok this afternoon. The event, which was aired live on Astro Awani, was part of his official visit to Thailand.

He took questions on a variety of issues, including on Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia being seen as another version of Umno, the economy, the third national car, Islamic extremism, discrimination against women, and education.

Dr M: Different races going to different schools

When asked a simple question on how he saw the future of education in Malaysia, Mahathir seemed to go off tangent by turning back the clock instead.

“At the beginning, we wanted to have just one national school system. However, some people insisted that they be allowed to follow their own culture, the culture of the countries they came from.

“We allowed that, so that resulted in three main streams – the national school where the medium is Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese schools with Mandarin as the medium and Tamil schools.

“This meant that different races go to different schools. They don’t get to know each other and when they leave school, they go to work with people of other races with whom they have had little or no contact. This stands in the way of national unity,” Mahathir said.

He added that the government had to accept the demands made by the other races to have the education available in their own language.

Arts education not desirable, says Mahathir

Mahathir then went on to elaborate about how education needs to evolve and that what was taught 30 years ago cannot apply now.

He called for more emphasis on science and mathematics if the nation wants to move towards becoming an industralised nation.

“This is because such graduates with such skills will eventually find it easier to get employment.

“If students pursue arts subjects, such as literature and the like, then they might find it difficult to find jobs,” he said.

Chinese schools a hot topic for more than 30 years

The issue of vernacular schools has always been a hot button issue, especially since Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. It was also seen to have been a contributing factor to Operasi Lalang in October 1987 which saw more than 100 people arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

In the months leading to the ISA arrests, Chinese educationists and MCA had protested when 100 senior assistants who were not conversant in Mandarin were posted to Chinese primary schools. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was education minister at the time.

PH manifesto promised UEC recognition

In more recent times, some Umno leaders as well as Malay nationalist group Perkasa had called for vernacular schools to be abolished, saying it went against national unity.

But this is the first time that Mahathir has been seen to take such a stand as prime minister.

Pakatan Harapan had promised to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), which is the highest qualification for students from Chinese secondary schools in Malaysia. The UEC is recognised by the top universities in many countries, but Putrajaya has always failed to recognise it, and also rejected calls for it to be a route for entry in Malaysian public universities.

Education Minister Maszlee Malik has also been coy on the actual recognition as promised by PH in its manifesto for the 14th general election, having been reported as saying in August that such recognition may come about “within the next five years when a thorough and holistic study is completed”.