Mother Tongue Education Has Regressed


From Kua Kia Soong
Mother-tongue education of the various ethnic minorities in Malaysia has regressed since independence.
While the population of the ethnic Chinese and Tamil communities has tripled, their schools have diminished in numbers.
Instead of pointing out the root cause of polarisation on racism and racial discrimination in official policies, the official narrative tries to pin the blame on “vernacular schools”.
Some 132 living languages in Malaysia are listed as endangered or undergoing language shift. Most of them are shifting towards Malay, the national language and main medium of instruction in national schools, and to English, an international language.
The tragic case of the seven Orang Asli pupils at SK Tohoi in Gua Musang, Kelantan, who fled into the jungle rather than face school, is a lesson for all of us on the urgency of mother-tongue education for our indigenous peoples.
The principle of “Pupils Own Language” (POL) established since independence has not been seriously implemented and this has also contributed to the demise of mother-tongue education of ethnic minorities in Malaysia.
Lack of funding is a poor excuse. In 1957, the GDP per capita of Malaya was just around US$800, whereas in 2020, our GDP per capita was over US$10,000. Thus, the issue of insufficient funds for taking care of the various mother-tongue education systems in the country does not arise.
The tables below compare the number of Chinese and Tamil schools at independence and the situation today, when the population of the respective communities has almost tripled.
Table I

Table II

Thus, at independence, the 86 Chinese-medium secondary schools were part of the national school system and there were more Chinese and Tamil primary schools than there are today.
The education ministry even ran a school-leaving certificate for graduates of the Chinese secondary schools from 1957 to 1961.
Many Malaysians may not know that Iban was the medium of instruction in the Sarawak curriculum during the 19th century, offered as a subject in public examinations and taught in the teachers training college. It was used in the courts and the mass media.
Furthermore, during the Emergency in the 1950s, the airing of Siaran Orang Asli in the Temiar and Semai languages to win over the Orang Asli from the influence of the communist insurgents shows that keeping indigenous languages alive is always possible if there is political will.
During the colonial days, missionaries translated the Bible into indigenous languages. If such efforts were possible, there is no reason why more than 60 years after independence, we cannot do more for the mother-tongue education of our ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.
There is, therefore, absolutely no excuse for state indifference in promoting the mother-tongue languages of our ethnic minorities.
The fact that there is a shortage of teachers in Chinese and Tamil primary schools remains a perennial problem that has never been systematically addressed.
Chinese primary schools have received declining development funds since 1970s which are not in proportion to the scale of their student numbers. Similarly, Tamil schools lack development funds to improve their facilities.
Rural schools face under-enrolment rates whereas urban schools are grossly overcrowded.
The POL policy established at independence requires all government schools to offer mother-tongue language as a taught subject when at least 15 students request it. The reality is that this has not been encouraged or seriously implemented for all minority languages and as a result, we see the demise of their mother-tongue education.
The indigenous communities in Sabah and Sarawak recognise that language shift is occurring and are taking steps to reverse it and to develop their mother-tongue education systems.
Since we organised the first seminar on “Mother Tongue Education of Malaysian Ethnic Minorities”, several indigenous minority groups such as the Kadazandusun, Bidayuh and Semai have been engaged in language development projects, developing writing systems and increased understanding of the vocabulary and grammar of their languages.
They have also implemented early childhood education programmes with the intention of increasing the number of speakers of the languages and raising their status.
The way forward
Ultimately, the preservation and promotion of mother-tongue education systems of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities depends on the following factors:
Multi-culturalism and mother-tongue education as a right
Ever since the 1961 Education Act, Umno, the ruling party for more than 60 years, has doggedly maintained that “the educational policy of the federation is to establish a national system of education acceptable to the people as a whole which will satisfy their needs and promote their cultural, social, economic and political development as a nation, with the intention of making the Malay language the national language of the country…”
This wilfully omitted some crucial guarantees for the preservation and sustenance of non-Malay languages and cultures in the country specified in the 1957 Education Ordinance: “… whilst preserving and sustaining the growth of the language and culture of peoples other than Malays living in the country”.
For years, Umno leaders as well as some constitutional lawyers have insisted that there is no constitutional protection for non-Malay vernacular schools, especially after the Merdeka University judgment in 1982.
However, in his foreword to my 2019 book “200 Years of Chinese Education in Malaysia”,  Michael J Beloff QC affirmed the constitutionality of vernacular schools in Malaysia:
“There is nonetheless the unresolved and much disputed issue as to the reach of the Merdeka University judgment itself. Does it mean that Chinese primary and secondary schools which use Chinese as the medium of instruction (and their Tamil analogues) are also operating unconstitutionally? I would make four points:
The Federal Court nowhere said that its judgment cast any doubt on the constitutionality of vernacular schools.The only judicial dictum that I have found on this issue said unequivocally that “there is nothing unlawful in allowing Chinese or Tamil schools to continue’’ (Public Prosecutor v Mark Koding Mohammed Azmi J).Whether viewed through the lens of “authority’’ or “power’’, there are obvious differences between the functions of a university on the one hand and a school on the other, which suggest that a read across from one entity to another would be inappropriate.On the international plane, there is a growing sensitivity to the preservation and protection of the linguistic rights of minority groups, notably the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Policies 1996.“This would make a challenge to schools which use a vernacular rather than the national medium of instruction (and have done so for more decades prior to the enactment of the Constitution than thereafter) as unpropitious as it may be – it is to be thought unlikely.”
Thus, if, the respective mother-tongue systems are seen as a right as stipulated in Article 152 of the 1957 Federal Constitution and 1957 Education Ordinance and not merely a privilege accorded by the minister as he sees fit in the 1996 Education Act, that would lay the foundation for mother-tongue education of all Malaysians to be respected and promoted.
The fact that the Chinese Secondary schools’ UEC is still not recognised by the government since 1975 even though it is recognised by the rest of the world shows a lack of commitment to multiculturalism.
Mother-tongue schools according to need
Ever since independence, vernacular schools have been politicised and racialised. Consequently, the ruling coalition has allowed only a handful of new schools as if they were grand gestures at every general election.
Even so, we have fewer Chinese and Tamil schools today than we had at independence even though these vernacular schools are packed beyond 40 to a class.
While the total number of schools has become smaller, the enrolment of non-Chinese pupils in Chinese schools has grown to 100,000, or one-sixth the total number of pupils in Chinese primary schools.
This cannot go on. To ensure a better school environment for our children’s healthy development, new schools must be built according to need. The provision of mother-tongue schools for the various communities must be depoliticised, deracialised and decentralised.
First, we must bring back elected local government and the decision on building new schools must be decentralised to these elected local councils. Schools would then be established according to a survey of what the community needs.
Thus, Chinese or Tamil schools would be built if the community wants their mother-tongue schools and not depend on a political decision by the federal government during general elections. The same goes for expansion and relocation of the schools.
Likewise, multilingual education for all our indigenous peoples must be placed on the national education agenda and the training of teachers for all mother-tongue systems must be standard practice based on need and not on the whims of the ministry of education.
The experiences of our Asean neighbours the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand in providing multilingual education for their indigenous peoples are proof that cost is a red herring.
Fair financial allocation and treatment
For years now, SRJK Chinese and Tamil schools have complained about the unfair financial allocations in comparison to SRK schools. The controversy over the paltry sum allocated to the 1,800 Chinese and Tamil schools (RM120 million) out of a total allocation of RM67 billion to the education sector in Budget 2022 is but the latest in a litany of complaints in recent years.
This makes a mockery of the government’s “Keluarga Malaysia” (Malaysian Family) slogan. Other important reforms for the way forward must include:
A government agency in charge of ensuring POL classes are embedded in the normal school timetable and not scheduled after school hours.Teacher training colleges must train teachers to teach in the mother-tongue of all ethnic minorities, especially those of the indigenous communities.The government must recognise the indigenous peoples’ native customary land and stop all so-called development projects that destroy their ancestral land. For example, the Bakun dam displaced the Penans and the Ukit, the only surviving ethnic community in the world. The cultural environment of the indigenous peoples is crucial to the survival and development of their languages and education systems. Their ancestral land and their political autonomy are critical to the preservation of their cultures and identity.Thus, we call upon the Malaysian state to step up and aid the development of mother-tongue education of our diverse ethnic minorities and to realise that real unity of “Keluarga Malaysia” can only be forged based on honouring the rights of all ethnic minorities to their mother-tongue education. - FMT
Kua Kia Soong is former principal of New Era College.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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