KUALA LUMPUR: The clock struck 3pm on a Friday afternoon and a sharp school bell pierced the quiet Taman Kaya neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur. Moments later, hundreds of students piled out of the gates; the all-white uniform of the male students giving away their identity as pupils of independent high schools.
On the façade of this Chong Hwa Independent School, red signage has been put up in commemoration of its centenary. The couplets in Chinese read: “Storms looming over the journey of Chinese education. We have been through 100 years and we will march on.”
Like many of the other 60 self-funded Chinese independent high schools in Malaysia, Chong Hwa has grown over the years.
It started as a primary school back in 1919 and housed some 80 students in three shop lots in Setapak. Today, its 5,000 students study in a 24,000 sq ft site off Jalan Ipoh, which recently saw the addition of a 13-storey building.
Next, the school management plans to construct a RM20 million (US$4.8 million) stadium equipped with swimming pool and a running track.
First established by migrants from China, such Chinese-medium high schools stand out as a unique feature of the Malaysian education landscape. They do not come under the purview of the Education Ministry, and the highest certificate they offer - the senior-level Unified Education Certificate (UEC) - is not recognised officially as entry qualification into local public varsities.
Recognition of UEC has been a drawn-out battle between these schools, the government as well as anti-recognition groups.
Those who are against its recognition condemn Chinese independent schools schools as a threat to national unity and the Malay language, for refusing to fall in line with the national education system.
Pro-recognition groups cry foul over the fact that UEC has not been recognised in Malaysia, despite top foreign institutions such as National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Tokyo University and Hong Kong University long accepting it as an admission qualification.
“The UEC recognition issue has been overpoliticised,” Chong Hwa’s board chairman Lim Keng Cheng told CNA. “It has turned into a racial issue.”
Ms Rebecca Yong, 40, whose daughter is currently in secondary three in Pay Fong Middle School in Melaka, concurred that the debate over UEC recognition appeared to be more about politics than anything else.
“I do feel as a Chinese, recognition of UEC is more like recognition of the Malaysian Chinese community’s contributions to the country, and things would seem more equal for everybody.”
She said she does not have much confidence in the current national education system, as it does not reward based on merit.
“I want my children to have fair treatment. You work hard, you get what you should get,” she said.
The Chinese independent schools, or du zhong in Chinese, survive largely on public donations and monthly school fees.
They use syllabus prepared by the United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong), which also conducts UEC exams for third and sixth year of secondary education.
These tests are equivalent to the PMR (Lower Secondary Assessment) and STPM (Malaysian Higher School Certificate, a pre-university qualification) exams in national schools.
However, since the UEC is not endorsed by the government, Chinese independent school students either sit for the STPM exams separately to gain admission into local universities, or pursue their tertiary studies in local private and foreign varsities.
According to 2014 statistics, Taiwan was the top choice among some 2,500 Chinese independent school alumni who went overseas for tertiary studies. Sixty per cent of them headed to Taiwan, while 15 per cent chose Singapore.
GOVERNMENT RECOGNITION AND PROMISES
The previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government had in 2010 relaxed its restrictions over UEC holders’ tertiary options, allowing UEC holders to enrol in the Bachelor of Education (Chinese) degree programme at the Education Ministry’s Malaysian Teachers Education Institute.
Pakatan Harapan (PH), meanwhile, has welcomed UEC holders to serve in state-owned companies in PH-led state Penang.
Separately, Sarawak announced its decision to accept UEC as a qualification of entry into its civil service in 2015. Defending his decision, then chief minister Adenan Satem said the federal policy of not recognising UEC was “stupid” as it had caused a brain drain and exodus of talent.
In the last general election, both BN and PH promised to recognise UEC if they were voted in to form the next federal government. BN said UEC holders would be allowed to enrol in public universities as long as they obtain a credit in Bahasa Malaysia and a pass in History in the SPM (secondary five Malaysian Education Certificate) exams.
Similarly, PH also pledged to recognise UEC as an admission qualification into public universities, provided the students earn a credit in SPM’s Malay paper.
Nonetheless, as PH’s one-year anniversary in power looms, recognition of UEC has remained unfulfilled.
In what may be an effort to address the concerns of the Chinese independent schools, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng announced a first-of-its-kind allocation of RM12 million for them in the 2019 federal budget.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
In October last year, Education Minister Maszlee Malik announced in the Parliament that his ministry had set up a fact-gathering task force to look into UEC recognition.
Centre for the Study and Documentation of Traditional Malay Performances founder Edin Khoo Bu Eng, Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia president Mohamad Raimi Ab Rahim and Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce president cum Dong Zong vice-president Tan Yew Sing were tasked with engaging the various stakeholders.
The committee spotted a major underlying problem – the Malay community and the Chinese community have not exchanged thoughts on the UEC directly.
All previous engagement has been top-down, by the Education Ministry officials who meet each interest group on a one-on-one basis, Mr Khoo said.
He noted that there was no argument about fundamental national principles, such as the status of the Malay language as national language as well as the right of any community to pursue its own education system.
The fact that Malaysian society was based on cultural and constitutional consensus, such as the constitutional status of the Malay language, underpin Malays’ views on the matter, he said.
The Chinese community, on the other hand, is not disregarding or dismissing these questions. “It’s just that the two groups don’t talk to each other,” Mr Khoo said.
CHINESE INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS BELIEVED TO HAVE AN EDGE
There has been a trend of more non-Chinese sending their children to Chinese-medium schools. This year, close to 82,000 students are studying in Chinese independent schools nationwide. According to 2018 data, about 1.5 per cent of the student population in these schools are non-Chinese.
Parents believe the Chinese schools have an edge.
Sabah’s Chinese independent schools have the highest number of non-Chinese students. Mr Robert George Mangharam, of Kadazan descent, sent all four of his children to the Sabah Tshung Tsin Secondary School in Kota Kinabalu.
“It’s not that government schools are bad, but these independent schools are a better alternative. Even though it costs more than if I were to send them to a government school, I am willing to pay because I want them to learn in a good environment and (be subject to) good influences,” Mr Robert, 51, said.
Two of his elder children sat for UEC exams, and then proceeded to study the government pre-university programme Form Six. They were later accepted into Universiti Malaya’s law faculty.
Mr Robert, a retired police officer, opined that UEC recognition would give all students a level playing field and have everyone compete fairly.
“We’re in a globalised world. You can’t afford to not recognise UEC when other countries’ public universities are willing to take them in,” he said.
Muslim Consumer Association of Malaysia chairman Nadzim Johan, who studied in a Chinese school, had all his children go through at least a Chinese primary school education. One of his daughters even attended the Confucian Private Secondary School in Kuala Lumpur.
“Because we see the benefits from whatever was taught in Chinese culture, we need to take advantage of that to do well in life.
“When I was sending my daughter to Confucian, I wasn’t looking at the recognition even,” said Mr Nadzim. “I want my kids to learn cultural traits such as work ethic.”
Ms Syamimi Yahaya, 33, who graduated from Pay Fong Middle School in 2005, said her parents saw the value of mastering a second language. Two of her sisters also attended Pay Fong.
“I don’t think my parents knew UEC was not recognised,” she said.
Her six years in Pay Fong paid off eventually when she was entrusted with important responsibilities at work. She found employment in a shipping company after obtaining a diploma.
“Since I have a UEC and I can speak and understand Mandarin, my boss asked me to handle the China accounts,” she said.
Ms Syamimi, who now resides in Kuching, Sarawak, said her daughter is studying in a Chinese vernacular school and will most likely attend a Chinese independent school.
“I’m sending my daughter to a Chinese school to learn and to be exposed to other cultures and languages. It helps prevent miscommunication,” she said.
UEC A THREAT TO NATIONAL UNITY?
However, others say that the UEC is a threat to national unity, while sidelining students that went through the national education system.
Professor Teo Kok Seong, who is Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies principal fellow, said it was a mistake for the PH government to pledge to recognise the UEC.
Offering places at public universities to UEC holders - even if there are only a few - comes at the expense of students who went through the national education system, he said.
In fact, the UEC students would be taking up places reserved for the Chinese students who sit for the STPM exams, he said.
“Is this fair? … Do not betray these ‘loyal students’ who uphold whatever is worth of the national education system, which in a way has no appeal to the UEC students (or their parents) who want to study Mandarin at all cost,” Prof Teo said.
Prof Teo opined that Chinese mother tongue education in Malaysia - be it the national Chinese primary schools or the Chinese independent schools - is indirectly a stumbling block to national unity.
While the students are required to study English and Malay, they speak Mandarin, tend to read Chinese newspapers and watch Chinese television programmes, he observed.
“They live a national life that is very much detached from other communities ... In short, living in the ‘Chinese world in Malaysia’ has made these Chinese less national or not national at all, and this is the very way that undermines the status of Malay as the national and official language of the country,” Prof Teo said.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with Singapore Institute of International Affairs, begged to differ. Unity, he said, cannot come at a price of submission and assimilation.
“Unity must be based on equality. We must have due respect for all the different cultures and races. Each must have equal standing. Unity at the price of sacrificing one’s own culture is unacceptable to many of us,” he said.
Dr Oh, a UEC holder, said characterising Chinese independent schools as a threat to national unity is a biased approach.
“Switzerland, for example, has four major languages - Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansh. The people speak their own mother tongue and come together as a country. It doesn't mean that if you have different languages, you are not one country," he said.
"That is racial supremacy. Students of Chinese independent schools refuse to accept this sort of inequality, this sort of racial, linguistic and cultural supremacy.”
FUTURE OF UEC UNCERTAIN
Come July this year, the three-man committee’s report on the UEC will be released. Mr Khoo said the committee is planning an open town hall session for different stakeholders to have a conversation.
“Our task is not to deliver a verdict. We provide recommendations, which will be forwarded to Cabinet for its decision,” he said.
Meanwhile, parents are not holding their breath. Chong Hwa’s Mr Lim said: “Just because you don’t recognise it does not mean that the Chinese education in Malaysia will suddenly die.”
Dong Zong, when contacted, declined to comment, pending the task force's report.