The older I get, the grumpier and more cynical I become; and as I grow more cynical by the day, nothing gets my goat more than having to watch and read about the developments in Malaysia where the lowest common denominator rules the day. On this occassion I find myself riled once again by the popular and populist demand for vernacular education, and to maintain a multi-track education system in the country. Again and again this issue bedevils our national politics, and again and again most, if not all, of the political parties in the country fall back to their safe positions while banking upon what they regard as their natural and safe political constituencies.
In this regard both the ruling coalition and the opposition coalition seem to be equally at fault: Neither side seems prepared to take the bull by the horns and do what seems simply necessary if we still going to entertain the notion that there is some form of nation-building at work in this country. Malaysia boasts of its uniqueness, but in this one regard it does seem to be unique indeed. After more than half a century of independence we still cling on to the notion that an inclusive national narrative can come about through not one, but several vernacular education systems. Nowhere else in the world (or the developed world at least) can I think of an example of such an arrangement, where both the government and the opposition seem inclined to support the popular demand for vernacular-based education streaming.
Nowhere else in the world would a plural society be made all the more alienated from itself by allowing kids to study in the company of those who are more culturally and linguistically closer to them. We lament, as we often do, the declining levels of inter-ethnic contact in the country; and we bemoan that the so-called ‘golden years’ of Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s are long gone. And yet we maintain this inane belief that by segregating children from an early age along linguistic-cultural lines we can still forge a Malaysian nation, together. How? And upon what basis would that shared sense of national belonging be found?
We wonder how and why the religious functionaries in the country can make the pronouncements they do, but what do we expect if we allow a condition where children from the same linguistic-cultural background are kept in the company of people similar to them from primary to secondary education, and perhaps even beyond? I have said the same thing so many times by now that I am only thankful that the internet does not incur the waste of ink and paper: Yet today, in Malaysia, it is conceivable that a child of a particular linguistic-cultural group grows up in the company of similar children up to the age of 18, without ever having to shake hands with someone of a different ethnic, linguistic or religious background. So much for diversity then – how on earth can we expect Malaysians to integrate if the educational system keeps them apart for so long?
And while on the subject of comparisons, can we imagine a similar situation in any developed country, like the UK, Germany or France? Where would France and Germany’s minorities be if they were segregated from childhood in Arabic or Turkish schools? How could they hope to enter the mainstream of society that is still defined and shaped by the national language of those countries? On the contrary, while I was living in Germany I came across scores of German-Arab and Turks who wanted their kids to enter and succeed in the mainstream educational system, knowing that in that country that is the only path to higher education, and possible upward social mobility as well.
Yet what it takes for this to happen in Malaysia is political courage and the will to put forward radical proposals that may not be popular, in fact downright unpopular. It takes a politician with guts to say that Malaysian kids ought to be able to meet, study, compete and succeed in a singular national educational system that mirrors the reality of Malaysia’s plural and complex society. And it takes some courage to state that if any Malaysian parent wishes his or her child to study Mandarin or Tamil, he should be able to do so in the same singular national schooling system where these languages should also be taught as Malaysian languages – languages that have been spoken in the region for centuries.
But politicians tend to be timid in the face of democratic populism, and the will of the voter – no matter how uninstructed, how bigotted or biased – seems to hold sway over their own opinions. I have met politicians on both sides of the fence who have confided in me their fears and anxiety over where the nation-building process in Malaysia is heading, and who know that if this trend continues there will not be one Malaysia but several Malaysias, that live side by side but remain clueless about their neighbours. But these very same politicians seem captive to the ballot box and paralyzed when it comes to doing what is necessary, albeit unpopular. They cannot speak out for fear of losing their so-called ‘natural vote bases’, that happen to be ethnic and linguistic vote bases, reflective of our fractured society. And so the charade continues, and we remain a nation that studies, and lives, apart. Thus has Populist Democracy made cowards of us all.