Shahril Hamdan

I note with great interest the recent revival of the debate about a single-stream school system. It remains an emotive issue, cropping up every couple of years only to fade away unresolved. Yet, peering through the seasonality is a constant: the topic won’t go away.

It is with some pride that my colleagues and I in the Youth Parliament played a small part in the latest incarnation. We tabled a motion for the government to implement a single-stream system at primary level, which passed with overwhelming support. Since then, ministers, politicians, professors and students have spoken out for and against the proposal. Some of us Youth Parliamentarians even set up a non-governmental organisation to mobilise traction.

Those of us who back the idea share a first principle: that the seeds of unity are best sown from a young age — miss it, and you will be playing catch up. Here, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s oft-quoted phrase of parallel lives and lines rings most true. There are too many cases of Malaysians growing up in divergent education and career pathways — often ethnically correlated — such that they don’t stand a chance of developing mutual empathy simply by sheer lack of cultural interactions and exchanges.

On this premise, a single-stream system where students learn, play and form bonds in the same classrooms and through the same language(s) — while no silver bullet — through basic deduction, will go a long way in pivoting these parallel lines towards each other.

The relative ubiquity of vernacular schools (SJK) — afforded “national” status and government funding, and where 700,000 or a quarter of the entire primary student population attend — presents a major stumbling block to such outcomes. While I recognise the strength of programmes like the Student Integration Plan for Unity (RIMUP) and Vision Schools, they remain but examples of tinkering at the margins — none too subtle attempts of skirting the main issue. Without singular priority to national schools (SK), in the key early years of socialisation outside their families, children of different communities are less likely to be in the same compound, be friends or master a common national tongue. Both the irony and significance of my feelings compelled to write on this topic in English is not lost on me.

Defenders of the status quo point to instances where non-ethnic Chinese intake in SJK are higher than that of non-ethnic Malay in SK — as if to suggest that SJK do a better job in promoting the very thing we are troubled about. Let’s be sincere. Notwithstanding demographic specificities, the existence of SJK disincentives non-Malays from going to SK in the first place. The incremental and ultimately limited achievements made in an inferior state cannot themselves be used to justify the rupture. It takes a monumental stretch to argue that a multi-stream system promotes unity; curiously, it is an imaginative dexterity many have demonstrated over decades.

Unity is a project necessarily incomplete, endlessly a work in progress. There are prevailing components in our education system that detractors of a single-stream system love to pepper at will — MRSM, UiTM, Islamic schools and the like. While I believe the existence of these institutions — whose numbers pale in comparison to SJK — in and of themselves do not immediately preclude the imperative of having a single stream system at primary level, I acknowledge they do pose notional questions that may lead to a labyrinth only the most sincere and committed to the unity project will brave.

But the temporal nature of our priorities shouldn’t deter us from moving in the right direction. Hence, the challenge of leadership: not to jettison the tough tasks and kick the political can down the road for a different generation to pick up. Politicians may live with five-year horizons; citizens, systems and nation states shouldn’t have to.

The policy debates and discourse will be complicated (for example, how do we square this with the tangential Bumiputera agenda; how do we ensure SK truly become a reflection of our multi-culture). The practical considerations are immense (for example, what happens to the SJK teachers, how do we teach Mandarin in rural areas). But unless we begin to genuinely tackle these difficult questions, our work in progress might as well read project abandoned.

Of the many reasons (read: excuses) not to do this, one is particularly defeatist: that long ago we had a chance to impose a single-stream system but chose a different model, now cast in concrete. Consider that this is, in many ways, a colonial legacy, optimising for colonial purposes, and now outliving ours. Might we take inspiration from their slightly more recent pop-cultural export? “Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on”.

In the long run, it says. Fifty-eight years is plenty.

Article was first published on New Straits Times Online