Monday, 21 December 2009

Untenable prejudice against Chinese schools

Kua Kia Soong

Source: The Sun (

PROF Khoo Kay Kim’s contention that the Chinese education system produces "copycats" through its rote-learning methods needs to be examined. He challenges his detractors to refute his claim by asking how many scholars of world calibre the Chinese schools have produced and how many students from Chinese schools have obtained scholarships from the government. His underlying motive is not clear – is he calling for Chinese schools to be closed down or to be improved?

Chinese schools in general or Malaysian Chinese schools?

In the first place, is Khoo saying that Malaysian Chinese schools produce copycats or that education in the Chinese language produces copycats? As an educationist, I am sure he knows the difference. If he is saying that education in the Chinese-language produces copycats then he implies that the education systems in China, Taiwan and Hongkong also produce copycats. Do I then have to produce examples of Nobel Prize laureates from these Chinese-language countries to rebut his argument?

» Lee Tsung Dao (Physics, 1957)

» Yang Chen Ning (Physics 1957)

» C. C. Ting (Physics 1976)

» Lee Y. T. (Chemistry 1986)

» Edmond Fischer (Medicine 1992)

» Daniel Tsui (Physics 1998)

» Gao Xingjian (Literature 2000)

» Charles K. Kao (Physics 2009)

Perhaps Khoo will protest and say he was only referring to Malaysian Chinese schools. But what’s the difference? Is he saying then that the Chinese schools in China and Taiwan are not copycats? Surely the key issue revolves around the quality of education, not the medium of instruction.

The early curriculum of the Chinese schools in Malaysia, like their counterparts in China was based on rote learning. But after the "Thought Revolution" of the May 4 Movement in 1919, this was replaced by a modern curriculum in China and in the Chinese schools in Malaya. This situation was by no means perfect. How could it be?

As a historian, Khoo will no doubt be aware that while the English schools in Malaya were nurtured by the British colonial power, the Chinese schools were neglected. The Chinese schools had to rely on self-help to survive in contrast to the British-supported English schools. Up to the present, they still have to survive through the sacrifice of the community to support the 1,280 Chinese primary schools and 60 Independent Chinese Secondary Schools.

The earliest record of Chinese schools dates back to 1815 in Malacca (See The Chinese Schools of Malaysia: A Protean Saga). The colonial government rationalised their lack of financial support for educating the Chinese masses in this way:

"British colonial administrators were so impressed by the high level of community organisation among the Malayan Chinese that they left them virtually alone to manage their own affairs." (Multi-ethnic politics: The case of Malaysia)

If Khoo cares to research the anti-colonial movement in Malaya, he will be aware that large sections of the anti-colonial movement were products of Chinese schools. Let us ask for the statistics on all the political detainees of the British colonial power from colonial times right up to Independence and note the proportion of Chinese-educated anti-colonial fighters.

Khoo will say No, that’s not what he’s talking about. But as a nationalist, is not anti-colonialism, equality, justice, freedom and democracy as important as "creativity" and international scholarship?

English schools or Bahasa Malaysia schools?

The scholars of international renown cited by Khoo are almost all products of the colonial era, products of the elite schools in which the medium of instruction was English. Is that surprising? We do not doubt that the students who have been educated in elite schools in Malaya and gone on to the Ivy League institutions have turned out to be luminaries in their fields. This is the case in every society where privilege prevails, whether in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Britain, US or wherever. It does not matter whether the medium of instruction is in English or Chinese or Malay.

But what about the post-1971 generation when the medium of instruction was totally in Bahasa Malaysia? Have we produced any scholars of international distinction, despite the existence of these traditional elite institutions? If we haven’t, then are the national schools teaching in Bahasa Malaysia also producing copycats? If not, why not? Why is Khoo only casting aspersions on the Chinese schools?

He may not be aware that the Chinese schools in Malaysia (including the independent Chinese secondary schools) have been following the National Curriculum ever since the 1961 Education Act. If the Chinese schools are producing copycats, then so are the national schools.

Chinese schoolchildren getting national scholarships?

Khoo shows his unfamiliarity with the national education policy and the Chinese school system when he challenges his detractors to show him how many Chinese schoolchildren have won national scholarships.

First, he must know that at least 90% of Chinese children go to (partially assisted) Chinese primary schools but only 10% of these go on to independent Chinese secondary schools. Thus any Chinese student who wins a national scholarship is likely to be from a Chinese primary school background, or at least there is a 9:1 chance of that. If too few Chinese students are getting national scholarships that is surely an issue for a Suhakam commissioner.

On the other hand, if you ask why no student from the independent Chinese secondary schools has won a national scholarship, it is because of the simple reason the Malaysian Government does not recognise their Unified Examination Certificate. The National University of Singapore has been poaching our students for years – at one time they wanted 1,000 of our students a year. I suggest Khoo uses his influence to get the statistics from NUS to find out how many Malaysian Chinese school students have won NUS scholarships through the years. Be surprised. Be very surprised.

Don’t we recall the case of the prodigy from our independent Chinese secondary school in Seremban who was admitted to MIT with a scholarship in the eighties? There have been many other cases highlighted in the Chinese-language press. We have a recent case of Pan Jian Cheng, the inventor of the pen drive, who is a product of an independent Chinese school in Klang and is now a rich young entrepreneur in Taiwan. There are numerous Nanyang University graduates who are luminaries in their academic fields in universities in Malaysia, Singapore and abroad. They are all products of our Chinese schools. My good friend and colleague, Dr Tang Hai Chang, a product of Nanyang University was a research fellow in nuclear physics at the Rutherford Laboratories of Manchester University, UK in the seventies.

My son and daughter are graduates of the Chinese schools. My daughter did not gain a national scholarship but she was awarded a UK National Health Service Bursary to study medicine. Like other Chinese school students, they are both fluent in Mandarin, English and Bahasa Malaysia. My son is also conversant in French and Spanish and can banter in Tamil. Copycats they are not.

Excellence and mediocrity in Chinese schools

My rebuttal to Khoo by no means argues that the Chinese schools of Malaysia are all excellent. There is a vast diversity throughout West and East Malaysia -- large and small Chinese schools, rich and poor, mediocre and excellent, depending on the locality, school committee, and awareness of the community. The problems they face stem from lack of state support for teacher training and insufficient schools resulting in gross over-crowding.

Their existence stems from the historical fact that the early Chinese Malayans – like their Malay and Indian counterparts -- wanted education in their mother tongue. They have sustained the schools for nearly two hundred years, surely a feat all Malaysians can be proud of. And when the government works out how much the Chinese community has subsidised the education budget since independence, they will realise that the bill runs into the billions of ringgit. Then think of the contribution of our Chinese school graduates to the national human resources all these years. Foreign universities, including those in the West often acknowledge the positive values, such as discipline, eagerness to learn, selflessness that our Chinese school graduates impart into their campuses – how do we measure such qualities?

There have been efforts at education reform in the Chinese schools but this has surged and waned with the calibre in leadership of the Chinese education movement and limited resources. The present leadership of Dong Jiao Zong leaves much to be desired. The point I want to stress is that despite the odds and gross discrimination in financial allocation and teacher training, the Chinese schools of Malaysia have survived a veritable "protean saga". Calling them copycats is an old nineteenth century story.

Let me end here with a snippet from an old correspondence I received from the world-renowned writer, Han Suyin, dated March 12, 1983:

"…the English-educated (in Malaysia) were also the worst enemies of Nanyang University. They knew only English and fought to retain their supremacy through English, knowing well that the Chinese education in the Chinese medium was totally adequate and in some ways a better type of education than that dispensed by the English schools."

Well, that’s her opinion…

Dr Kua Kia Soong is a noted social scientist, author, educationist and a former politician. Comments:


通告 Notification

Malaysia Time (GMT+8)