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Chinese Education in Malaysia: A Burning Desire in the Heart

Sim Siaw Cheng/Columnist, Nanyang Siang Pau

2003/03/17

Recently, the ethnic schools issue has become the focus of controversy in Japan. It was triggered by instructions given by the education ministry that graduates of international schools are allowed to sit for the national university entrance examinations whereas graduates of ethnic schools are first required to pass a high school equivalency test (daiken). This is said to be discrimination against graduates of ethnic schools. This measure is mainly caused by the tension in bilateral relations between Japan and North Korea. Unfortunately, South Korean and Chinese schools will also be affected.

There are about 11,000 students enrolled in schools affiliated with North Korea, and most of their graduates are permanent residents of Japan. Leading newspapers and the public have criticized the instructions as "unnecessary restraints" and share the view that ethnic schools deserve equal treatment with international schools as long as they meet the educational levels of Japanese schools.

The above-mentioned issue reminded me of Chinese education in Malaysia.

Malaysia is well known for its multiracial society, consisting of Malays, Chinese, Indians and other ethnic groups. The education system in Malaysia is 6:3:2:2, where basic education consists of at least nine years i.e. six years of primary (ages 7-12) and three years lower secondary (ages 13-15) education. After that, there are two years of upper secondary (ages 16-17) and two years of pre-university (ages 18-19) education before proceeding to university level. In relation to the medium of learning, there are 3 types of primary school, i.e. national schools using Bahasa Malaysia, national-type Chinese schools using Chinese and national-type Tamil schools using Tamil as the medium of teaching. Bahasa Malaysia is the only medium in all secondary to tertiary (pre-university) education. There are 9 public universities; one international and 2 national institutes will be upgraded to university status. In addition, there are more than 300 private institutions, educational centres and colleges.

Malaysian Chinese are free to choose the national education system or Chinese education system. The national-type Chinese primary schools are fully or partly subsidized by the government whereas the Chinese secondary schools (Independent schools) are solely supported by the Malaysian Chinese community.

The first Chinese school in Malaya was set up at Penang in 1819. There are now approximately 1,283 Chinese primary schools and 60 Independent schools throughout the country. A total of 6 million Chinese spare no effort to support the existence of Chinese schools in Malaysia.

The infrastructure of Chinese schools is not as good as Malay schools but many Malay and Indian parents prefer to send their children to Chinese schools. This is an excellent example of the integration of a multiracial society. In the state of Kedah, the hometown of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, it is said that 60,000 Malay children attend Chinese schools.

Chinese Education indicates the pride of the Chinese community. Its accomplishments are attributed to the sacrifice of our ancestors. The founder of Nanyang Siang Pau, Mr. Chen Jia Ken, devoted himself to Chinese education and was saluted by the Chinese community. In general, Malaysian Chinese are mostly very concerned about education and are always enthusiastic about contributing to it either in the form of money or kind to provide a better learning environment for the younger generations.

For the past 17 years, the Malaysia Top 10 Artistes Charity Show organized by Nanyang Siang Pau has been one of the major fund-raising projects for Chinese schools. The Top 10 local singers are selected yearly through the mechanism of newspaper voting (15%), online voting (15%) and 100 professional forums (70%). The 10 selected artistes are invited to perform in Top 10 Charity Road Shows and travel throughout the country to help the schools raise funds. Some 400 Chinese primary schools, independent schools and higher learning institutions benefit from this project. The total collection of donations so far is about RM200 million (approximately \6.2 billion).

As the main coordinator for the Top 10 Charity Show, I am deeply impressed by the eagerness of the Chinese schools and support from the community. Last year, the total funds raised by one of the Independent schools in Muar, Johore state, amounted to RM3 million (approximately \93 million), despite the economic stagnation in Malaysia. The teachers and students went all out to reach the targeted donations within 2 months under the strategy initiated by the principal.

Fund-raising activities for Chinese schools receive an overwhelmingly positive response from the Chinese community. Meanwhile, the contributions of open-minded non-Chinese leaders should not be overlooked; it would not be a total success without their blessing. Non-Chinese ministers and assemblymen also supported the schools by contributing part of their allocations.

The United Chinese School Teachers Association, strongly supported by thousands of guilds and associations, plays an important role in preserving the rights and current status of Chinese education. They pledge the government to build new Chinese schools to accommodate the dramatic increase of students in certain areas. Some schools in rural areas with less than 10 students have been moved successfully to high-density residential areas.

Malaysia is the only country outside China that possesses a Chinese school education system. Although Chinese education is a sensitive political issue, the outlook for Chinese education is optimistic as more and more English-educated parents send their children to Chinese schools. As a Malaysian Chinese, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to learn my mother tongue and the excellent Chinese culture. Despite some arguments related to Chinese education, I am indeed indebted to the contributions and sacrifices of all parties concerned who have enabled us to preserve the identity of Malaysian Chinese.

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The author is a guest researcher at The Asahi Shimbun Asia Network. She is a columnist for Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper in Malaysia.