National unity cannot be taught in classrooms

By Leslie Lau
Consultant Editor

Dec 13 — As the debate rages over the existence of vernacular schools, the effect of such institutions on national unity and the countless arguments over their so-called superiority, I cannot help but think that the one element that appears to be missing from the discussion is how our attitudes and culture shape us.

I am the product of a Chinese education and if I am to be honest with myself I hated it. It is not because there was anything inherently wrong with the system. I attended Sam Tet in Ipoh. It was, and still is, one of the top Chinese schools in the country with one of the best academic records around.

We spoke English and Cantonese at home. My parents were not Chinese-educated. I found it difficult to cope with Mandarin.

Today, I can read Chinese newspapers. I can watch a Mandarin movie without depending on subtitles. I can sort of get by when I go to China. For that I am grateful.

And yes, I can read the menu in a Chinese restaurant. My dad used to tell me how he was always a little embarrassed he could not read the menu when he went out for dinner with his expatriate miner friends in Ipoh.

Do not get me wrong. I am not suggesting we get rid of Chinese schools.

As I look back on my time in Sam Tet, the one thing that is clear is that those among my classmates who scored highest in tests and examinations were those who worked hard at it.

It was their attitude that mattered. That was not a subject taught in Chinese schools.

The same can be said about who we made friends with.

Yes, most of the friends I had when I was growing up were Chinese. But that had probably more to do with the fact that Ipoh was and probably still is one of the most “Chinese” towns in Malaysia.

Still, one of the things I learned from my parents was that we made friends with everyone. Race was not an issue for me when I made friends.

Today, I have far more non-Chinese than Chinese friends. But that is not the point. Some of my best friends became my friends because we enjoyed each other’s company or because we shared common ideals.

Here’s the thing. My Chinese school background did not make me a racist, and neither will going to a national school make a Malay, or an Indian a racist.

The idea of national unity cannot be forced on a people. It really depends on one thing. And that is whether people believe in a country.

For the most part, that probably happens when there is a sense of belonging, fair play and opportunity.

And that comes from our attitudes toward each other.

Education is ultimately about providing the opportunity for knowledge. If Malaysians think our education system is failing us, we must examine why and then fix it.

I do not know whether the answer is to maintain the system we currently have or to have a single school system.

What I do know is that schools are not the place to fix the distrust and suspicion we have of each other as Malaysians.

To fix that, we have to change our attitudes.

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