TWINNING OF GOVT AND VERNACULAR SCHOOLS
By Brendan Pereira
KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia will adopt a novel method to tackle racial polarisation among the young: by promoting twinning programmes between vernacular and national schools, where the majority of students are Malays.
The brainchild of Acting Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, the scheme could involve children from a Chinese language school, Tamil language school and a national school coming together at regular intervals for day-long activities.
'I want them to form mixed teams and play football. This is one way we can increase the level of interaction between the races,' he told The Sunday Times in an interview on Thursday.
He has suggested that a school in Georgetown and one in his constituency in Kepala Batas, on the mainland of Penang, kick off the twinning programme.
To get the idea to catch on nationwide, Datuk Seri Abdullah will ask Education Minister Musa Mohamed to send out a circular encouraging schools to find twinning partners.
It is hardly surprising that the idea originated from him. The racial enclaves that are developing in schools, tertiary institutions and other areas of multiracial Malaysia trouble him deeply.
'I am very concerned about racial polarisation. I would like to see more Malay, Chinese and Indian students mix and interact.'
He is seeking a return to the old days when someone like him, from a 100-per-cent Malay-Muslim background, attended school in Bukit Mertajam and became fast friends with Chinese and Indian boys. Some of these friendships have survived the test of time.
As education minister more than a decade ago, he noticed how the different educational language streams were driving a wedge between the races. He proposed the idea of Sekolah Integrasi or integrated schools.
His idea was simple: National schools and vernacular schools within a kilometre of each other should share common facilities for extra-curricular activities. It was a plan ahead of its time.
This time, the comprehensive reform of the national school system cannot be thwarted. Not with the backing that both Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Abdullah are giving to this project.
'The reform of the national school is extremely important for Malaysia. The schools are where the future generations of the country will come from. It is here that we must arrest the trends towards polarisation, extremism and intolerance,' Datuk Seri Abdullah said.
The main aim of the reform is to make national schools attractive to all races.
At present, fewer than 5 per cent of Chinese students are enrolled in national schools at primary level.
For Indians, the percentage is about 14 per cent.
Many non-Malay parents prefer to send their children to vernacular schools, pointing out that the atmosphere in national schools is overly Islamic. They also lament the inadequate time set aside for the teaching of mother tongue.
The government has also discovered another troubling trend: An increasing number of Malay parents are giving national schools a miss, preferring to send their children to religious schools.
To arrest both trends, the government has set up a high-powered committee to make national schools attractive to both non-Malays and Malays.
The committee comprises Dr Mahathir, Datuk Seri Abdullah and four former director-generals of the Education Ministry. It will be at least two months before the makeover of the national school system is announced.
For a start, it is going to improve the teaching of Chinese and Tamil. It is also considering making Arabic a compulsory subject for Muslim students.
The overhaul of the religious curriculum could be in the form of after-school classes for Muslim students.
In this way, the authorities will be able to meet a demand of a growing number of Muslim parents: that their children receive a more comprehensive religious education.
Datuk Seri Abdullah looks forward to the day when the racial mix in national schools will reflect the demographics of Malaysia.
That was the school system he remembers growing up in, the one that gave him his multiracial outlook on life.