Mahathir very wrong when he said that requests to build new Chinese primary schools to meet increased student enrolment needs is not related to getting good education

Speech (6)
on the Royal Address 
by Lim Kit Siang

(Dewan Rakyat, Wednesday): Recently, the insensitive statements by UMNO and UMNO Youth leaders on requests to build new Chinese primary schools under the Ninth Malaysia Plan to meet increased student enrolment needs again tested the nation’s commitment to building a united multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation. 

It is most unfortunate that the Royal Address yesterday had not been used as an opportunity by the government to state its dual policy  commitment to strengthen national primary schools as the first choice of the rakyat as well as to give fair treatment to mother-tongue education, in particular the  building of  new Chinese primary  schools to meet increased student enrolment needs.   

These are  two completely separate issues  and they must not be treated as  a zero-sum game, although many UMNO and UMNO Youth leaders continue to belabour  under the mindset that the former could only be achieved at the expense of the latter.  

Saturday’s Chinese press gave prominent coverage to the clarification by Dr. Vincent Lim, political secretary to the Prime Minister, that Abdullah had never said last  Monday  that “building Chinese primary schools is inimical to national unity”.   

This clarification is most welcome.  It is however most unhealthy and undesirable that different language media are given different perceptions of what Abdullah had said or not said about Chinese primary schools. 

For instance, there is no similar clarification for the other language media, although Utusan Malayia’s front-page headline story on Abdullah’s last Monday statement had  carried a basically similar message as the Chinese media.  

The first paragraph of the front-page lead story of Utusan Malaysia of 15th March 2005 under the headline “Perkasa sekolah kebangsaan – Pelbagai system pendidikan tidak baik untuk Negara – PM” reported:  “PUTRAJAYA 14 Mac - Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi menegaskan sebarang tindakan untuk menambah Sekolah Rendah Jenis Kebangsaan (SRJK) Cina atau Tamil hanya akan mewujudkan pelbagai sistem dalam pendidikan dan ia tidak baik kepada negara.” 

Without the  clarification that Abdullah had not said the “building Chinese primary schools is inimical to national unity” being given and published by all language media in the country, Malaysians are given two different perceptions depending on the language media they rely for their information, viz: 

  • Chinese language media clarifying that Abdullah had not made the statement that “building Chinese primary schools is inimical to national unity”; and
  • Bahasa Malaysia language media reporting that Abdullah had said that building Chinese primary schools “tidak baik kepada Negara”.

Immediately after Abdullah’s Monday statement, UMNO Youth Education Bureau came out with a statement giving full support to the Prime Minister’s  stand that building new Chinese primary schools “tidak selaras dengan objektif dan visi kerajaan untuk memperkasakan sistem sekolah kebangsaan” and “tidak memberi kesan positif kepada usaha untuk menyatupadukan rakyat Malaysia”. 

There were  also the statements by UMNO Ministers and leaders, as well as UMNO Youth leaders, reiterating  their mistaken and baseless  proposition that Chinese primary schools are obstacles to national unity and the cause of racial polarization in the country. 

The situation has not been helped by the four-day delay in making prompt clarification as to what Abdullah had said or not said about the building of new Chinese primary schools on Monday. 

Malaysia should be able to show a greater maturity in discussing national issues as in two years’ time, Malaysia will be celebrating half-a-century of nation-building since Merdeka in 1957.   

There should be more and not less democratic space for a rational and responsible discussion of the hopes and aspirations of Malaysians, and there is no reason why the issue of building new Chinese primary schools to meet increasing student enrolment needs should suddenly become a “sensitive” issue that can only be discussed “behind closed-doors” between the UMNO President and MCA President, when for 48 years, it was never regarded as a “sensitive” issue which cannot be openly discussed whether in Parliament, State Assemblies,  public meetings or the mass media. 

The building of new Chinese primary schools to meet increased student enrolment needs is not only in conformity with the constitutional rights and guarantees of mother-tongue education in Malaysia, but  is important to  bring about quality reform of education in the country in keeping with Malaysia’s national aspiration to become a K-economy with the international competitiveness to meet the challenges of globalization on the world stage. 

With two years to go before Malaysia’s half-century of nationhood, let us depoliticize the issue of education, in particular mother-tongue education – where Barisan Nasional would promise fair treatment to Chinese primary schools before each general election, even the building of new Chinese primary schools (full-page advertisements were taken out in the Chinese newspapers in the March 2004 general election, just like the full-page advertisements calling on the voters to support the Barisan Nasional candidates so that Abdullah could become a modern-day Justice Bao to eradicate the corrupt in the high echelons of power) but which are immediately forgotten in the first two years after the general election and requests for fulfilling the general election pledges to build new Chinese primary schools to meet increasing student enrolment needs are literally regarded as anti-national, unMalaysian and unpatriotic.

DAP supports the government’s strengthening of national schools to make it the first choice of the rakyat but it is  most short-sighted  if the whole strategy to make national schools the first choice of the rakyat is by continuing to deprive  fair treatment for  mother-tongue education, such as  the unjust treatment of Chinese and Tamil primary schools, whether in terms of refusal to build  new schools to meet increasing student enrolment needs, fair allocation of school development funds, adequate teacher-training, and cramping Chinese primary school pupils into 50 to 55 per class when the ideal class size is 30 per class.

Such a strategy is condemned to failure, as it can only promote even greater disunity in our multi-racial population as well as  detrimental to the long-term national interests to enhance our  international competitiveness in  facing the challenges of globalization, as it will deprive Malaysia of quality education and excellence of human capital,  which is  the most valuable asset in the new K-based economy. 

The contention of those who oppose the building of new Chinese primary schools to meet the pent-up student enrolment needs on the ground that it would contribute to greater racial polarization and national disunity is not tenable  for many reasons, including:

  • Ignoring the fact that students in the Chinese primary schools do not come exclusively from one racial group, i.e. the Chinese, as more than 10 per cent of the enrolment comprise Malay, Indian, Iban and Kadazan students;
  • The double-standards in defending the existence of educational institutions which are exclusively for  one ethnic group, like UiTM, which one Cabinet Minister had declared would not be open to non-Malay students;
  • Ignoring the fact that over 90 per cent of the Chinese primary schools continue secondary education in national secondary schools, giving them the opportunity to interact with a more multi-racial student population at the secondary and tertiary levels.

A successful and viable strategy to strengthen national schools and make it the first choice of the rakyat must be one which could make them even more attractive to parents and students  than national-type primary schools because of its educational quality and learning environment to develop the best talents and potentials of the students even when Chinese and Tamil primary schools are given fair and just treatment as an integral part of the national educational mainstream.

When Abdullah became Prime Minister, he had promised to hear the people’s views. The people’s expectation that there would be more democratic space to express their legitimate hopes and aspirations are sidelined  however when the the issue of building new Chinese primary schools to meet increasing student enrolment needs becomes one  fit only for “closed-door” discussion between two persons, the Prime Minister and UMNO President on the one hand and his  Cabinet subordinate and MCA President.

Are Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament and the civil society completely redundant and irrelevant to the  decision-making process? Is the consultation process  for the formulation of the Ninth Malaysia Plan going to be  even more restricted and undemocratic than previous five-year plans?  

Four  years ago in early 2001, in the run-up to the formulation of the Eighth Malaysia Plan, DAP had called for a new Deal for Mother-Tongue Education to be incorporated into the Eighth Malaysia Plan, including the building of 250 new Chinese primary schools in the five-year period, based on the following grounds:

  • There were  some 70,000 non-Chinese students in the Chinese primary schools in the country, which should have meant the building of some 120 new Chinese primary schools just to cater to this demand.
  • During Independence in 1957, there were 1,333 Chinese primary schools with a total  enrolment of 310,000 students. Forty-three years later in 2000, Chinese primary school enrolment has doubled to over 620,000.  There was however no  matching doubling of the number of Chinese primary  schools in the past four decades. Instead, there was  a reduction of 49 schools from 1,333  to 1,284 schools.
  • In 1968, there were 2,770 national primary schools with a total enrolment of 666,389 students.  In the 32 years from 1968 to 2000, total enrolment in national primary schools reached  2,218,747 (an increase of 1,552,358) while the number of national primary schools increased by 2,637 new schools to reach a total of 5,407 schools.   This works out to an average of an increase of 588 students for a new national primary school.
  • If the above  average of a new national  primary school for every increase of 588 students was  applied to Chinese primary schools, there should be an increase of 527 new schools in the 43 years from Independence in 1957 to 2,000 for the doubling of the Chinese primary school enrolment from 310,000 to 620,000.  As in the past 43 years, there had been a reduction of 49 Chinese primary schools, this would put the shortfall of Chinese primary schools as of 2,000  at  527 + 49 = 576.
  • Asking for the building of 250 new Chinese primary schools from 2001 to 2005 when there should have been 576 new Chinese primary schools built by 2000 was reasonable and fair.

The case  for a fair and just treatment for Chinese primary schools, and in particular  the building of new Chinese primary schools, is even stronger for the the Ninth Malaysia Plan, as the total student enrolment in the Chinese primary schools have increased further to 636,783 in 2003 with the number of Chinese primary schools numbering 1,287. 

Abdullah should  give a categorical assurance that the Ninth Malaysia Plan consultation will be meaningful and democratic,  not    be a one-way traffic and that   Malaysians should be at liberty to raise wide-ranging issues which should be  discussed  in a sober, responsible and rational manner  without sensationalism, emotionalism, incitement  or  race-baiting.  

Most important of all, there should  be no attempt to shut off public discussion  on any  issue by arbitrarily classifying it   as “sensitive” such as the  building new Chinese primary schools to meet increased enrolment needs, which will make both the Ninth Malaysia Plan consultation process  and Malaysian democracy a mockery. 

Yesterday, former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said the request to the government to build more Chinese primary schools is not related to getting good education.  I do not know what ulterior motives the former Prime Minister is trying to imply, whether he is suggesting that the overwhelming majority of Malaysian Chinese send their  children to Chinese primary schools are not sufficiently loyal to Malaysia and are agents of racial plolarisation,  but Mahathir cannot be more wrong for getting a good education is undoubtedly the  primary reason for the Chinese primary school student enrolment.. 

The phenomenon of the overwhelming majority of  over 90 per cent of Chinese pupils enrolling in national-type Chinese primary schools is not a recent development, as it goes back to  over three decades  to the seventies when there was a sudden education policy change in the shutdown of all English-medium primary schools.  

In 1977, for instance, with Tun  Dr. Mahathir Mohamad as  the Education Minister, 87 per cent of the Chinese students were already attending the Chinese primary schools, as 478,849 out of a total of 550,545 Chinese primary pupils were in Chinese primary schools. These data are to be found in the Mahathir Cabinet Education Review Committee Report which was made public in November 1979, and there was a parliamentary debate on my motion on the Mahathir report in June the next year.

National-type primary schools had never been a separate education system in the country, as it has followed a common national syllabus with a common national examination system.  It is not Malaysian-centred mother-tongue education which is the cause of racial polarization but divisive national policies which continue to segregate Malaysians into bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras instead of treating them as one Malaysian people.

If Chinese primary schools,  with the enrolment of some 90 per cent of the Chinese pupils, are the nurseries  of chauvinistic, anti-national and unpatriotic Malaysians, is it seriously suggested that Parliament and the Government are infested with such personalities, as the two top MCA leaders in government, namely the MCA President Ong Ka Ting and Deputy President Chan Kong Choy, and all non-Malay Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries and MPs who  went to national-type Chinese primary schools ll all come under suspicion with regard to their loyalty and patriotism?

In the past 30 years, Chinese primary schools had produced Malaysians citizens who had contributed more than their share to the present economic and national development of the country.

In fact in every general election, UMNO leaders would compete to praise Chinese education, both Chinese primary schools and the 60 Chinese Independent Secondary Schools, for their educational excellence, school discipline, teacher commitment and national contribution.  Why should they be singing a different tune after each general election?

I call on MPs from all political parties, whether in government or opposition, to set a national example of de-politicizing education issues, to  respect the constitutional and fundamental rights of Malaysians to mother-tongue education and to focus instead  on raising the quality of education of all schools, whether national or national-type, to enhance our international competitiveness to face the challenges of globalization.

Let us all reach a national consensus that while we fully support the strengthening of national schools to make it a first choice of the rakyat, this will not be at the price of depriving mother-tongue education, which is constitutionally guaranteed, of fair and just treatment as in building new Chinese primary schools to meet increased student enrolment needs.  


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman