Adam Reza

You know an issue has become important once the deputy prime minister starts talking about it and that’s the exact situation we find ourselves in with regard to the debate about implementing single-stream schooling in the name of national unity.

My stance is this: I am with the status quo and remain a firm believer in advocating choice for Malaysians.

I also disagree with claims that the establishment of single schools is a silver bullet for some of the woes we face with national unity, especially given the current realities.

Now, at my core I would say, of course, a single-stream school system is ideal.
Then again so would the abolishment of race-based political parties, which when you think about it – especially given 90% of our politicians’ love for stirring racial tensions – will have more of a pronounced effect on unity.

This encapsulates the problem with this proposal – an unwillingness from our leaders to go the whole nine yards to achieve unity.

If all we want to do is to assimilate Malaysians into one Malay monoculture then frankly, it flies in the pluralistic face that Malaysia presents herself to be.

To make it work, there needs to be an extensive consensus from all Malaysians to revise the key issues pertaining to our social contract.

Second, the fact that we’re starting with this mindset of social engineering is wrong.

There’s something that’s not quite right when top-down attempts to foster unity are put in place.

Think about attempts to make Bahasa Malaysia the language of unity, something that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself admitted has failed.

If we’re serious about making national schools the choice for all Malaysians, let’s get people to voluntary want to send their children to them.

To do this we need to confront the elephant in the room.

Our education standards have slipped. We need to reverse this.

Malaysians deserve a local education system that is on a par with Singapore or Korea.

We’ve got a great education blueprint. But we need to ensure that the execution is just as good.

In this globalised world, it will also help if we went back to English-medium schools with quality Mandarin language facilities.

Now anyone who fears that this goes against Malay sensitivities must note that even the Sultan of Johor and Tunku Zain Al-Abidin are all in for English-medium schools.

Indeed, our prime minister went to school in England.

This has not stopped him from having a great mastery of the language or for looking out for Malay interests and being a warrior when the time calls for it. So I believe these fears are exaggerated.

A final point to make is even if we do abolish vernacular schools tomorrow, segregation will still be a reality.

Think of the demographics of this nation, where the norm is such that majority Malay, Chinese or Indian neighbourhoods are prevalent, especially in rural areas.

So we’re still going to find ourselves in a situation where there’s a huge majority of one race in a school.

What happens then?

Will we be doomed to a cycle of perpetual disunity?

God forbid, will we go to the extreme of implementing Singapore-style ethnic quotas in neighbourhoods?

This is why values matter.

For a start, the purpose of our schools – regardless of their ethnic make-up – is to teach us to be better than books and exams.

To be Malaysians with good values.

I’d love to think that regardless of what school you go to, that the values of unity and respect are being taught in schools so that not everyone from a vernacular school is a racist or everyone from UiTM is a racist.

We need to get our values right and it would certainly help if teachers espoused these values.

We only need to look to Sabah and Sarawak for proof.

They have the same vernacular schools, the same national schools and the same religious schools.

Indeed, some of the schools in remote villages are largely homogenous ethnically and religiously, like Bario, where my late mother comes from.

Yet somehow, they’ve managed to foster a more cohesive unity, working within the same constraints we face – several school streams, lack of interaction at an early age in some villages, etc.

For a start I think it’s attributed to the fact that their leaders, including Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem, espouse values of unity.

This is crucial because even if we had an ideal single-stream school today, it would make no difference if our leaders continue to fan racial tensions, bandying pejorative terms like “pendatang” and the like.

If our leaders are serious about unity they need to walk the talk and go the whole nine yards. You can’t enforce unity. Not this way.