Some of the media exchanges on the proposal to establish English medium national schools have given the impression that these schools would be able to facilitate inter-ethnic integration better than Bahasa Malaysia schools.
It is true that in the late fifties and sixties, many English medium schools in urban centres were multi-ethnic. Consequently, there was quite a bit of interaction among the students. But it was the composition of these schools ---not their language of instruction --- that was the cause.
In the seventies as English medium schools were converted to Bahasa schools, the ethnic mix changed quite dramatically largely because of an exodus of Chinese students who opted to join Chinese primary schools. There were many reasons for this including the decline in the quality of teaching of core subjects such as English, Mathematics and Science and the lack of opportunities in Bahasa schools to learn Chinese as a subject, in spite of a provision in the Education Act that allows for the study of one’s mother tongue. Parents, it appears, were also concerned about the alleged lack of discipline in Bahasa schools and their children’s academic performance.
As Bahasa schools became less multi-ethnic and more Malay, they began to acquire, especially from the nineties onwards, a more Islamic character. This further discouraged non-Malays and non-Muslims from enrolling in these schools.
There is however another reason for the outflow of Chinese students from Bahasa schools which is seldom highlighted. Like other non-indigenous communities in societies which had become multi-ethnic as a result of colonial rule, the Chinese and the Indians in Malaysia, have by and large adopted an apathetic --- at best lukewarm --- attitude towards the elevation to national status of practices and symbols associated with the indigenous people. This is why there is hardly any enthusiasm even today among the non-indigenous communities about promoting and popularising Bahasa Malaysia as the definitive language of the land.
The situation has been exacerbated by a Malay elite since Merdeka which has always been ambivalent about the efficacy of Bahasa Malaysia as the language of commerce, industry, science and even government. Mainly English educated, it lacks a holistic vision of how the national language can help to integrate our culturally diverse society.
Contrast this with Indonesia whose elite even before Independence in 1945 articulated a clear commitment to nurturing Bahasa Indonesia as the principal channel for integrating 6000 ethnic groups into a united nation. The Indonesian leaders were determined to evolve a shared national identity through their national language because they knew that the Malay language had served as a lingua franca --- a language of inter-ethnic communication and interaction --- for hundreds of years. Malay, one of the most multi-cultural languages in the world, is eminently qualified to promote integration in a multi-ethnic society. Even in our case, before colonialism, it was primarily through the Malay language that small Chinese communities in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Melaka integrated remarkably well into the prevailing cultural ethos.
There is every reason to believe that Bahasa Malaysia can once again help to facilitate interaction and integration in our sekolah kebangsaan. Our real challenge is to make these schools multi-ethnic. Create a learning and teaching environment that will draw the different communities to Bahasa schools. Implement all the proposals contained in the Education Blueprint --- about improving the teaching of various subjects and languages; about discipline; about classroom size; about school administration; about transcending ethnic and religious boundaries; about being truly inclusive. Indeed, in recognising and rewarding students and teachers, be just and fair, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. To carry forward all the changes envisaged, ensure competent, dedicated leadership at all levels of the education hierarchy.
Once all this is done, the national school, I have no doubt, will become the school of first choice--- sooner than later.