JAN 12, 2003 SUN

IMPROVING RACIAL HARMONY

KL's Mandarin solution

Mandarin lessons, along with Arabic and Tamil, at primary one level will be offered to all races in Malaysia's national schools

By Leslie Lau

MANDARIN lessons will be offered to all races in Malaysia's national schools to increase Chinese enrolment in government schools and to improve race relations in the country.
The classes will be introduced for primary one classes some time this year along with Arabic and Tamil, depending on demand.
The government has expressed concern in recent years about the racial segregation of the school system, with nine out of ten Chinese children enrolled in Chinese schools while national schools have become predominantly Malay.
Now, the Education Ministry plans to change things by introducing Mandarin classes in an attempt to make schools more multi-racial.
'We want to create a multi-lingual society and to improve race relations,' Education Minister Tan Sri Musa Mohamad said yesterday.
The enrolment of non-Malays in national government schools has dropped sharply in recent years.
Government studies show many non-Malays, especially the Chinese, feel marginalised in national schools.
Selamat datang, ni hao and vanakam: These newly-minted primary one children will soon be able to say welcome and hello in various languages -- Malay, Mandarin and Tamil -- if they so wish. These languages will be introduced in primary one classes in Malaysia's national schools later this year -- AFP
Some non-Malay parents also perceived national schools as becoming too Islamic in nature, with some Malay teachers bringing in their religious values into the classroom.
The government feels many of these perceptions are based on mutual suspicion between the races in Malaysia and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that the only way to change things is for pupils of all races to study, eat and play together.
Tan Sri Musa said that national integration was among the most important objectives of the country's education policy now.
Previously, Mandarin and Tamil was only taught under the Pupils Own Language (POL) programme, outside normal school hours.
The introduction of new languages is part of the government's efforts to revamp national schools, where up till last year Malay was the only medium of instruction.
English has been introduced in all schools this year as a medium of instruction for science and mathematics.
An Education Ministry official told The Straits Times: 'Malays and other races will also get a chance to learn Mandarin if they want to and this will go a long way to improve race relations.'
He said that for a start, 60 minutes a week would be allocated for teaching Mandarin at primary one level.
While it has not been made a compulsory examination subject, he expects many pupils to take it up.
Chinese primary schools, where Mandarin is the medium of instruction, have become increasingly popular among Chinese parents but this has contributed to racial segregation among the country's youth.
Influential Chinese education groups have opposed government moves to introduce English in these schools, and the issue remains a political powder keg.
'We are still suspicious that these moves are part of the government's ultimate aim of eventually closing down Chinese schools. That is not right because mother tongue education is a fundamental human right,' a leader from the Dong Jiao Zhong Chinese education movement told The Straits Times.
But the government has constantly denied wanting to close down Chinese schools.