Side Views

Language barriers for the Chinese-educated — Rita Sim

April 15, 2012

APRIL 15 — A widely-held belief among Malaysians is that Chinese-educated students are academically superior to those in the national education system. This generalisation hides a shocking fact: One in every four Chinese-educated students drop out of school at age 16.

This worrying trend can be traced back to our incomplete Chinese education system. Malaysia is the only country in Asean that has Chinese education as part of the national education system, allowing for a thriving multi-lingual society.

This unique system is a result of efforts by earlier leaders of the community, who recognised the importance of maintaining the Chinese language not only as a form of communication or a tool for the pursuit of knowledge, but as an identifier of Chinese heritage.

However, when the government adopted a single education policy and terminated public Chinese secondary schools, this left the country with 1,293 SRJK(C) and only 78 SMJK(C).

Students who complete primary school in SRJK(C) today are faced with two options for secondary education: National secondary schools where Bahasa Malaysia is the teaching medium or privately-run Chinese Independent Secondary Schools (CISS) where Chinese is the medium of instruction.

Many parents have no choice but to send their children to national secondary schools, due to the prohibitively high fees of the private CISS.

When making this transition, Chinese-educated primary students — like their Tamil-educated counterparts — struggle not only with the Bahasa Malaysia subject but other subjects too, which are all taught in Bahasa Malaysia. Anyone who has ever had to switch from their mother tongue to conversing and learning in an unfamiliar language will appreciate the challenges these students have to face.

Not many students can cope; they flounder in class, struggling to learn new concepts in a new language, especially when they are placed in “poor” classes where less attention is given to them.

It is not surprising that some eventually lose interest in their studies, dropping out as soon as they complete their Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) examinations.

Even vocational schools, which teach skills in professional and technical trades for the less academically-inclined, work against Chinese-educated students because the medium of instruction is Bahasa Malaysia as well.

This leaves the school dropouts with few options but to enter trades where no qualifications or little skills are required, such as peddling illegal DVDs, operating hawker stalls or in the worst case, pushing drugs.

It alarms me that we continue to perpetuate the myth of the “academically-superior Chinese student”, when this is far from a universal truth. While Chinese schools emphasise strict discipline and academic excellence, we cannot be blind to the weaknesses of our dual education system.

It is imperative that all students be given a level playing field that allows their potential to flourish.

Changes need to be made at the SRJK(C) level, where the standard of Bahasa Malaysia has to be improved. Ideally, this language subject should be taught by bilingual teachers who can teach Bahasa Malaysia while being conversant in the students’ mother tongue.

Another solution is to continue with the year-long remove classes in national secondary schools, which was originally intended to prepare students from vernacular schools to cope with the change in the teaching medium.

In September 2011, 13 Chinese-based associations under the governing body “Committee Members of Secondary School Dropouts, Plan of Action for Malaysia” called on the Education Ministry to review the Remove class system, citing weaknesses in the syllabus, the standard of teaching and the way the classes were conducted.

Mainstream secondary education needs to be more inclusive of vernacular students and permit bilingual teaching for the Bahasa Malaysia subject during the first two years. This strategy, along with special bilingual classes for students who still cannot cope, helps to ease the transition.

These solutions can be translated from mere rhetoric into practice if we stop politicising the issue of education for our own short-term gains.

Our education system is the backbone of our country and is unique. It would be a shame if our students became its victims, instead of benefiting from its strengths. —

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.