T HE recent report in a Malay daily (Aug 11), quoting the Educational Studies Faculty dean of a research university coming out in support of the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and several non-governmental organisations on the need to rebrand schools to be 1Malaysia schools disturbed me greatly about how academics fail to distance themselves from the politics of education.
It was reported that the dean supported the claim by these parties that the rebranding will become the “prime mover” to improving racial unity. Central to their claim is the assumption that the root cause of the erosion in the spirit of unity is the division in the schooling system, that is, of national schools and vernacular schools, pointing the finger squarely at vernacular schools.
Very often, when discussing the issue of national unity or the lack of it, certain segments of Malaysians continuously bay for the blood of vernacular schools. In fact, some academics share the sentiment. I argue that they do so based on a false premise.
The central premise of those who continue, perhaps misguidedly, to point their finger at vernacular schools as the problem behind disharmony and the rise of racism in Malaysia is that differences cause disharmony.
However, it is important to note that the idea of 1Malaysia lacks clarity and continues to be debated as to what it actually stands for. In many of the issues that have played out in the public sphere, there is no consistency in what 1Malaysia stands for.
Very often, the idea continues to play up differences in a negative light and uses differences to argue for particularities as the basis of unity. It is paradoxical to say the least in what it looks like and what it actually means.
Leaving aside this little problem that somehow has been overlooked by those who suggest 1Malaysia schools as a solution, I move on to show why the premise is wrong.
I begin with the premise that differences cause disharmony. Is this the case? Is there empirical evidence that strongly supports the premise that differences result in the break-up of society? Perhaps, historically, there have been cases where differences have involved conflicts big and small such as Sunni/Shia, Hutu/and other tribes. However, in many cases, what has driven them to be intolerant, oppress and kill others is not the differences per se but the lack of a shared understanding of the other.
In this sense, just differences alone are not the root cause of disharmony in our society. It is the lack of a fundamental understanding in society that unity is not about being similar or having similar values or languages or cultures, but about having a perspective that we have a common humanity borne by a shared vulnerability.
So, can we conclusively say (and in educational research involving people, is it right to make such a claim?) that closing down or rebranding vernacular schools will bring about national unity and wipe out racism?
This argument raises an even more fundamental question, or prior question, as to what is unity, whether it is properly understood and the notion of racism and education for unity.
The word “unity” has been used in education with no proper account as to what it actually means. Very often, the word is hijacked and used, especially in the rhetoric about education, with no real effort to understand that perhaps it exists on a scale.
The question for those who bay for the death of vernacular schools (by the way I went to a missionary school that became a national school when I entered Standard One) is whether their argument stands up to a thorough investigation.
One particular study has shown that students in national schools face racism despite having a common language and supposedly similar values. Of course, this is just one study, but there are others that raise further questions that need to be examined further before we point the finger at differences and resort to commonality as the solution.
Perhaps it is time that those in charge of education not follow the “trend” of going for the obvious and examine instead much deeper into what unity means and the questions it raises for our educational policy, specifically its fundamental ethical basis.
The myth of racial and religious disharmony continues to be played up politically. However, it is important that academicians and researchers do not get caught up in this politics of education.
To quote anthropologist Professor John R. Bowen: “… the idea that the world’s current conflicts are fuelled by age-old ethnic loyalties and cultural differences” and “this notion misrepresents the genesis of conflict and ignores the ability of diverse people to coexist. The very phrase ‘ethnic conflict’ misguides us. It has become a shorthand way to speak about any and all violent confrontations between groups of people living in the same country. Some of these conflicts involve ethnic or cultural identity, but most are about getting more power, land, or other resources. They do not result from ethnic diversity; thinking that they do sends us off in pursuit of the wrong policies, tolerating rulers who incite riots and suppress ethnic differences”.
This letter, due to limited space, can only touch on something that is more complex and which requires more time and space. In writing, I hope that as a society, we will continue to debate this issue, and for academics to examine what underpins the problem within education and how it might be contributing to our fragmented society, in greater depth.Dr NSMA, Kajang, Selangor NST Education 16 AUGUST 2014 @ 8:03 AM