Skip to main content



commentary Commentary

Commentary: Why Malaysia’s debate on race, education and vernacular schools will rage on

PUTRA Vice-President Khairul Azam is fighting for Malaysian courts to rule vernacular schools as unconstitutional. But it would be more productive to focus on what best raises the level of education in the country, says Kate Ng.

Commentary: Why Malaysia’s debate on race, education and vernacular schools will rage on

Primary students wait for their parents after school on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jul 2, 2018. (Photo: AP/Yam G-Jun)

LONDON: The argument against vernacular schools has been used as a weapon for political gain for as long as I can remember. 

But the most recent debate that has risen around the subject bears a heavier weight than usual.

Vernacular schools, which are schools that use languages other than Malay and English as the main medium, have been around since colonial times.

They are a fixture of the educational landscape in Malaysia thanks to Chinese and Indian migrants who wanted to provide their children with alternative academic opportunities when they settled in the country.

Last week, lawyer and vice-president of a Malay nationalist political party, Khairul Azam, failed to launch a challenge declaring that vernacular schools are unconstitutional. 

Khairul is the vice-president of a Malay nationalist political party called Parti Bumiputra Perkasa Malaysia or PUTRA for short.

READ: Malaysia’s Chinese independent schools face uphill climb in quest for qualification recognition

His argument is that according to the Federal Constitution, the national language is the Malay language. 

This, in his view, means that vernacular schools that teach mainly in Mandarin or Tamil, go against the Constitution.

But we know Khairul’s challenge is not about what’s constitutional and what’s not. Considering his position in a political party, in a climate of racial tensions that have been stoked, prodded and provoked, his challenge is simply about winning.

The Federal Court of Malaysia. (Photo: Sumisha Naidu)

The Federal Court dismissed his application for leave to challenge the existence of vernacular schools.

That should have been the end of it, except that Khairul vows to continue his challenge and has plans to take it to the High Court in Malaysia.


With the way race relations are currently in the country, the hypothetical abolishment of vernacular schools would be potentially disastrous.

READ: Commentary: A multiracial Malaysian agenda is not only necessary. It is desirable

Nationalist Malays rooting for Khairul to win would be increasingly convinced of their superiority, and with the courts on their side, there would be no stopping them from lording it over the other ethnicities.

Muslims appear to be feeling increasingly insecure under a new Malaysian government that is more representative of minorities AFP/Mohd RASFAN

That’s speculation, one might say. But consider that the founder of PUTRA, far-right Malay politician Ibrahim Ali, is also the founder of Perkasa, a Malay supremacy NGO. It doesn’t take much to put two and two together.

And what of the other races? Ask nearly any Malaysian Chinese what they think of the situation, and they would tell you – it feels like the only thing party leaders care about is pandering to the Malays. Malaysian Indians feel even more neglected, with most of their community’s needs and concerns ignored.

READ: Commentary: Malaysia’s national consensus on race and politics risks unravelling

Malaysia is home to more than two million ethnic Indians who live among a predominantly Muslim Malay population of some 32 million. (Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana)

But you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to understand how tenuous that harmony is, despite the best efforts of many well-meaning individuals.


Enrolment rates in Chinese vernacular schools have remained impressive, with 90 per cent of Chinese parents enrolling their children in Chinese primary schools since the 1970s.

The steady enrolment rate points towards a belief that education in these schools is of higher quality – even non-Chinese parents have been choosing a vernacular education for their children.

The number of Malay students in Chinese schools has been steadily increasing over the years, with many Malay parents citing good reputation and the rise of China as an economic powerhouse for preferring to send their children there.

Between 2010 and 2014, enrolment of non-Chinese students rose by 20.7 per cent from 72,443 students in 2010 to 87,463 in 2014, according to a study by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

By 2016, non-Chinese students made up almost 18 per cent of total enrolment in Chinese-language primary schools.

File photo of a primary one teacher and her students in a classroom. (Photo: Bernama)

There is also the cultural aspect to consider – much like Malay nationalists who vie to put their mother tongue first, so too are ethnic groups who send their children to their respective vernacular schools. It’s a connection that runs deep and when threatened, instills fear and suspicion.


Khairul’s challenge has been undoubtedly empowered by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s own stance that vernacular schools stand in the way of “national unity” – a stance he adopted for the first time as prime minister.

During an event in Bangkok in October 2018, Dr Mahathir said that at the start of Malaysia’s independence, the government wanted to establish a single national school system.

READ: Malaysia’s educationists against teaching of jawi calligraphy in vernacular schools as controversy rage

“However, some people insisted that they be allowed to follow their own culture, the culture of the countries they came from,” he said, referring to schools and curriculums that were developed when groups of workers from China and India migrated to Malaya under British colonial rule.

“This meant that different races go to different schools. They don’t get to know each other and when they leave school, they go to work with people of other races with whom they have had little or no contact. This stands in the way of national unity,” he said.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad is the leader of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, one of the parties in Pakatan Harapan.

Emboldened by the Prime Minister’s stance, Malay nationalists have seized on this sentiment of “disunity” as a means of proving that vernacular schools should be abolished.

This was further empowered when the topic was brought up again in early October this year at the controversial Malay Dignity Congress, calling for abolition of the schools to be completed by 2026.


All the fuss about whether vernacular schools should be abolished or not also distract attention away from Malaysia’s primary and secondary education system, which is largely regarded as below the levels it should be.

A paper published in 2018 critically assessed the education system, highlighting that the average reading competencies and performance in science and mathematics of Malaysian students lags behind countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand.

With many parents recognising the high standards of vernacular schools in comparison to national schools, it would be a better use of energy to improve academic performance and progression in national schools rather than penalise vernacular schools for their pedagogy.

READ: Game changer? Pan-Borneo Highway in East Malaysia offers hope for development, but locals sceptical

A more pressing issue is also the decline of English standards among students in the country.

The East Malaysian state of Sarawak will be the first to reintroduce English as the medium for mathematics and science in all national schools in order to combat this. All other states should follow suit in order to bring standards back up to par.

Malaysia's Ministry of Education building in Putrajaya. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps a more efficient, logical way of pleasing everybody would be to introduce strong teachers in vernacular languages in all national schools. That way, everybody would have the choice to pursue their mother tongue while still learning Malay and English in the same school as every other race.

This seems to be the most logical way forward, and yet, the debate rages on.

If this was what Khairul’s challenge was really about, it would be a welcome one in the court of public opinion.

However, given the rather obvious nationalist position he comes from, as well as the emotional nature of the vernacular school debate in Malaysia, his challenge is treated with fear and suspicion, even by the courts.

The courts of Malaysia, leaders in education, and political parties would do well to continue rejecting challenges from the likes of Khairul.

But with Malaysian schools being weaponised and syllabuses and curriculums constantly changing to suit religious and racial agendas, there is no doubt we haven’t heard the end of this yet.

Kate Ng is a Malaysian journalist based in London.


Source: CNA/ms(sl)


Also worth reading