AFTER setting up the first English-medium school in Penang in 1816, it was the Christian missionaries who were responsible for establishing Western-style schools in Malaysia.
At the turn of the 20th century, following the success of the mission schools, the British colonial government also decided to establish English-medium schools.
Like the mission schools, most of these English-medium government schools were located in urban areas. As such, while those in English schools may have enjoyed a healthy mix of students of all races, this option was limited largely to an elite group of well-off urbanities.
For the bulk of the country, schooling was sharply divided by racial lines, with Malays, Chinese and Indians mostly attending their respective vernacular schools.
Although the colonial government also set up Malay vernacular primary schools around the same time, these were clearly not of equal quality.
One paragraph found in an official British document, routinely quoted in academic research on the era, neatly captures the government’s attitude towards vernacular Malay education at the time: “to improve the bulk of the people, and to make the son of the fisherman or peasant a more intelligent fisherman or peasant than his father had been, as a man whose education will enable him to understand how his lot in life fits in with the scheme of life around him”.
Aside from a limited number of Chinese medium secondary schools, most secondary and tertiary education available used English as the medium of instruction.
Besides the limited opportunity for social mobility through education for pupils from vernacular primary schools, there was a wide gap in terms of gender differences as very few girls completed schooling at the primary school level.
Those from English-medium schools had a much better chance of gaining civil service positions or entering into commerce and business fields.
Critics say that the move was driven more by economic need and paternalism rather than the idea of social mobility for the locals.
As one Western researcher put it, the purpose of English medium-schools was to provide clerks and subordinate staff for the colonial bureaucracy.
PRIYA KULASAGARAN email@example.com The STAR Online Education Sunday June 2, 2013