By Dr Boo Cheng Hau

The recently announced National Education Blueprint contains nothing new. And it shows the powers-that-be have no real intention to listen to the public or make any bold reforms to our ailing education system.

It is a repetition of the sad old story about racial prejudice, not much different from the so-called “National Education Policy” which was largely based on Umno’s Malay nationalist belief that the national language should be the sole medium of instruction.

Proponents of the Malay-medium only policy also emphasise the Malay nationalist perspective of history that having one common language – such as in our neighbours Indonesia and Thailand – can save Malaysia from disintegration.

Racial prejudice and political demagoguery as the basis for our nation’s education agenda of true unity will not get us far. Let me prove how discriminatory is our education system and the false impressions that it projects.

I had a taste of victory for what it means to have “equal opportunities” in education about 30 years ago when I argued for admission, on behalf of a schoolmate, into an American university which has produced some of the Nobel laureates.

My friend was originally from Taiwan but studied in a Chinese independent secondary school here in Malaysia. She did not sit the SPM or UEC (Unified Examination Certificate). To my surprise, the admission officer of the American university requested for UEC results in lieu of SPM qualification.

She did not sit the UEC because the exam was still new at that time. After a long discussion, the admission officer agreed with my proposal that she be admitted conditionally on producing evidence of completing 12 years of primary and secondary education – a standard which almost all American universities and colleges go by.

She was then admitted “under probation” for one semester, meaning she would be considered a regular student after the period of study with a GPA of 2.0 and above (an average of C and above). She graduated eventually without any impediment.

Her experience goes to show how democratic, liberal and flexible the American education system is. This is one of the key factors that allow the United States to become the most technologically advanced country, and one to which many talents from other parts of the world choose to emigrate.

The value of the UEC

In the 1970s, nobody in Malaysia took the UEC exam seriously except for the powers-that-be who attempted to ban it on account that the exam was (perceived to be) “anti-national”.

Nonetheless besides Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore where the UEC was recognised, many American universities and colleges had already begun accepting it as a gateway for college admission.

As far back as 30 years ago, one of my classmates was admitted to the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology based on her UEC results and Chinese Independent School coursework assessments.

Would our public universities and UiTM open their admission policies and welcome UEC holders by integrating them into the mainstream of higher education institutes rather than discriminating them? Some top American universities even admit Chinese independent secondary school students based on school results and class ranking without referring to standardised examinations such as SPM, UEC, GCE, SAT and the like.

Yet after 30 long years, our own Malaysian government still despises the UEC as “anti-national”. In fact, except for respective language subjects, all UEC subjects are offered in three languages; in other words, one can opt to have his math, science, or other papers tested in English, Malay or Chinese.

Chinese independent school graduates are barred from using their UEC results as a means of admission to local public universities and teacher training colleges. This discrimination is deemed necessary to maintain Umno’s self-righteous “National Education Policy” for the promotion of “interracial unity”.

How can political demagoguery such as Umno’s ever help in promoting national unity and interracial integration? One could argue that the party is actually more interested in maintaining its tight grip on power by continuing to mislead the country that vernacular schools somehow pose a hidden threat.

STPM and matriculation – apple and orange?

The powers-that-be have since declared that racial quotas are no longer applied in local public universities. Instead, they claim a “merit-based” admission system has been put in place.

However, at the same time, university admission standards are “diversified” into two separate entry points – STPM and matriculation.

After years of protests by the non-Malays, only 10% of matriculation programmes has been opened up to the non-Bumiputera, and even this percentage is described by the Malay nationalists as a “sell-out” of Malay rights.

Non-Malays are supposed to be grateful for this small “kindness”, like once upon a time coloureds were supposed to thank their white masters for allowing them to go to schools in apartheid South Africa despite great disparities along racial lines in school facilities.

Almost all the non-Malays who managed to gain a seat in the local universities are students who sat the STPM. Many rue this blatant division of university entrance assessment – along racial lines – as comparing apples and oranges.

Satu Sekolah’s inherent contradiction

The authorities contradict themselves by professing a single-language system to promote national unity through putting children under one roof but at the same time segregating them either at Form 1 or when they finish Form 5.

There is an obvious discrepancy between the teaching facilities provided to the vernacular schools which sorely lack government aid and support, and the residential schools and Mara junior science colleges as well as the elite schools catering for Malays – for example, the prestigious Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) and Tunku Kurshiah College (TKC).

Institutional racism practised in public university admission routes gives rise to an added dimension of polarisation. The racial distribution of students is further exacerbated when non-Malays, erroneously seen as well-to-do, are enrolled in private higher institutions of learning. Most people seem to forget that privately funded education, whether locally or abroad, comes at a heavy cost to their parents.

The indirect makings of apartheid

To generalise most Malays as “poor” and all non-Bumiputera, particularly the Chinese, as “rich” is just as good as apartheid.

The Malay ultras believe they are above being associated with the apartheid system in South Africa created with the ostensible excuse of helping the “poor”, Dutch-speaking whites of that country.

But then what should the international community make of UiTM – Malaysia’s biggest public university with campuses in every state – where almost all its students belong predominantly to a single race?

In the former apartheid of South Africa and during the 1950s in the Confederate states of the American south, physical segregation was made visible by the sign saying, “No Coloured and Dogs allowed”.

In Malaysia, there are no signs to say “No Non-Bumis and Dogs allowed”. However, de facto apartheid still permeates through the fabric of the Malaysian public education system. It is de facto racial segregation in its utmost hypocritical disguise without leaving any physical evidence.

Therefore, I see no difference between those poor whites in the former Confederate states of the American south that once held demonstrations against university admission of black students and those Malay ultras that hold demonstrations barring “non-Bumiputera” from entering local public institutions.

UiTM students did demonstrate against their university opening its door a crack when Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim proposed relaxing the admission just a tiny bit to the so-called “Non-Bumis”.

America’s highest court ruled for equality

In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the US Supreme Court unanimously decided that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”.

It stinks of double standard, if not a glaring blind spot, when vernacular schools keep getting blamed for institutional racism in Malaysia. If mother tongue vernacular schools (open to all students) are incorrectly termed as racist, then the one-race UiTM is nothing but apartheid.

The old, presumed poverty line along the race divide is no longer valid, not when Malaysia has endured discriminative policies predicated on ethnicity since 1970, which is all of 42 years or almost half a century.

There are very few Malay intellectuals willing to tackle the truth of the matter, but Dr Azly Rahman is one of them. At least he’s been honest and bold enough to speak out on the “bankrupt Umno ideology” of race supremacy in his article Dismantle Our Apartheid Education – see http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/191989.

What is required is for more members of the Malay intelligentsia to question the veracity of a “moral” claim in the perpetuation of a quota system that amounts to apartheid. The only difference is that segregation, like that perpetuated by residential schools, Mara junior colleges and UiTM, is couched using terminology portraying a righteous morality.

The other difference is that Chinese schools are accessible to any non-Chinese, but UiTM does not welcome the non-Malays. In some Chinese independent secondary schools, non-Chinese are given a blanket free tuition.

Are Malays courageous to re-evaluate?

The Malays are a strong majority in numbers and without doubt politically dominant. Why should Umno cling tenaciously to the view that preferential treatment based on race is the “affirmative action” that Malays still require?

Professor Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi in Memories of Unity vividly describes his confidence to compete in his science class and how he emerged as one of the top students among his almost all Chinese classmates back in the 1970s (see http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?sec=lifefocus&file=/2012/9/23/lifefocus/12063972).

I had a Malay classmate who went to the same Chinese independent school as I did. He graduated as one of the top students and went to a local public university, and he is currently a lecturer at another local public university.

It is a myth that Bumiputera students are unable to compete with non-Bumiputera students on a level playing field. This misconception is wrongly used to justify the institutional racism imposed on the public education from top to bottom.

There are tens of thousands of Malays who have made it in local and prestigious foreign universities and thrived in adverse socio-cultural settings. There is no moral justification for segregating Malaysian post-secondary students into STPM/ matriculation except for satisfying Umno’s racial imperatives.

NEP and education apartheid

A few successful Malay billionaire cronies do not mitigate the failure with regard to certain protectionist areas of the NEP. This includes educational apartheid. The rejuvenation of the vernacular schools since the late 1970s when NEP went into full swing is a consequence of our race policies, and not the chief cause of racism.

The NEP was based upon the empirical generalisation that Chinese and Indian Malaysians were all well off and should be “positively discriminated”against in order to help the “poor Malays”.

It’s a different story today as the civil service has become Malay-dominated and this is empirical truth. The tables have been turned as Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent are marginalised.

The original purpose of the NEP to eradicate the identification of race with profession – Malay farmers, Chinese shopkeepers, Indian clerks – is sidetracked when the civil service has become wholly identified with the Malay race. The racial traits along professions, as reflected in the hiring practices of both the private and public sectors, have been deepened by the NEP.

When I recently requested some documents to be certified by a government department, the Malay clerk gave me a jealous one-eye wink knowing that it was for the purpose of applying to colleges in the US. The one-eye wink might perhaps have been nothing more than the coded message that all you “Chinamen” are rich and can afford to send your children overseas to be educated. This only goes to show up the failure of the NEP in correcting the racial prejudice among races in Malaysia.

How the Chinese prioritise education

The fact is that I told my children I would sell our house and live in a smaller one if we needed funds for their education. I mean education is where they would learn something new and be happy including getting away from institutional racism. We neither hope for Public Service Department or any other government scholarships after hearing so many sad stories of racial degradation.

Selling homes and other property for the sake of the children’s education among the lower- and middle-class Chinese Malaysians is not a new practice. I remember my mother decided to sell off the six-acre rubber plantation left by my deceased father to put myself and my sister through university.

She later worked as a babysitter to cover all our expenses studying overseas. We always thought that there might be more Malays who did not have land to sell. Nonetheless, our good reasoning has not helped many Malays to get rid of their own ingrained racial prejudice both against themselves and other races.

As I write this article, coincidentally, my 17-year-old daughter has just received news that a high-ranking American university has agreed to admit her into its Fine Arts programme based on her multiple talents, multilingual skills and ability to play the Chinese zither and flute. Some universities already made it clear they will admit her by waiving the requirement of her SPM or UEC results.

On the contrary, her talent in playing ancient Chinese musical instruments is definitely not a criterion for admission into any local public university. On the contrary, it may even work against her favour as it could be looked at as a form of Chinese chauvinism and clinging to our ancestral roots.

Deserving of places in local universities

I am not trying to boast my daughter’s academic achievement. She is actually a B-average student but it sure makes a parent proud when one’s child deservedly gains recognition for her talents and, more importantly, she will be able to further develop her talents without being labelled as a non-Bumiputera.

I am glad that her dedication to social work and extracurricular activities, including organising a joint concert of Chinese Orchestra and Western bands, won her recognition from some highly ranked American universities.

One of her recent achievements is receiving a Gold Medal in an international Chinese essay-writing contest in Taiwan. Instead of chucking her unique credential aside, an American university admission director gave great words of encouragement, such as “your family must be very proud of you [for the Gold Medal received]…We would like you to be with us, and I hope you will continue to contribute to the international programme here if you decide to join us”.

I was surprised that she was offered admission and given a partial academic scholarship before we even sent out applications to other American colleges and local private universities.

Some universities are amazed that our students can master two or three languages. They usually give positive encouragement like: “Considering English is your third language, your English is really good.” No parents will send their kid to a college where he or she faces the possibility of being humiliated and degraded on account of race, creed and “non-native status” when my daughter is actually a native-born fourth generation Malaysian.

As a matter of fact, most UEC holders have a greater proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia which is their second language as compared to English which is their third language. If the UEC holders can do well in universities overseas that teach in English, why can’t they be given the same opportunities by our local public universities?

It might be true that their Bahasa Malaysia may not be as good compared with SPM/STPM holders just as their English may not be as good as the Americans, British or Australians when they enrol in American, Australian or British universities. However, if they are given the opportunity to enrol in local public universities, they will be able to polish their BM just like how when given the opportunity to study abroad they are able to polish their English.

More importantly, such openness is needed in order to “converge” the vernacular school alumni into the local higher education institutions and complete an education integration process rather than forcibly “diverge” them to local private institutions and overseas colleges.

We have to be fair and realistic in assessing our students’ language ability based on what is the best they can do in their learning environment. In fact, cultural immersion is the best method to improve Malay language or any other second language proficiency instead of educational segregation like what has been practised here.

Some 30 years ago, it was rare to encounter Americans learning an Asian language. Today, there are American reporters who insist on interviewing me in perfect Mandarin or Bahasa Indonesia. It is a fast-changing world out there but it seems our Umno elites – with the exception of Najib Tun Razak whose son is a fluent Mandarin speaker – are lagging behind time.

The very first step for the Malay ultras to take in the right direction is to cease making a scapegoat out of Chinese and Tamil primary schools. It is an unfounded charge that little children are responsible for racism and racial disunity in Malaysia.

It is, on the other hand, our fear to embrace cultural diversity and true interracial integration that has left us lagging behind many other countries. It is time for the Malay ultras to open their eyes and correct their ingrained prejudice that has worked against their own competitiveness.

The writer is the Johor DAP chairman and state assemblyman for Skudai.

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