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Don't Forsake Tamil Schools

Contributed by Anonymous on Wednesday, December 15 @ 08:18:58 CST

Tamil SchoolsVasanthi Ramachandran
New Straits Times (Malaysia)
Sept. 16, 2002
Woman in My Own Write
TAMIL schools have received much scrutiny lately, amidst the controversy of science and mathematics being taught in English in primary schools. I started off writing about the English language as a yardstick for global competency but I refrained from this myopic vision to write about Tamil schools instead.

I know enough is said but little done about the Tamil school-going child and his limited choices. It is not that we do not notice this child. But because he has been there for so long, he has become part of an accepted landscape of many neglected issues - inadequate schools being one of them. The Indians' economic disparity is reflected in Tamil classrooms and is entrenched among other grievances.

Just like every ethnic conscious Indian, I asked others what they thought of Tamil schools. As expected, they dismissed it with disillusionment - get rid of all Tamil schools and replace them with national schools.

Undoubtedly such a dismissal from the rising middle class is not due to a lack of concern for our cultural roots but rather a personal conviction and a social sensitivity towards the young Indian who deserves better.

There are success stories which are the exceptions. For instance, two of my friends, a cardiologist and a recently returned scholar from abroad, seem to differ in their opinion.

Both studied in Tamil primary schools and believe that the institution should be preserved but equipped with better facilities. Agreed. We need answers to many critical questions before we can even start thinking about the consequences of closing Tamil schools. It is so easy to break an institution but truly difficult to create another.

Though we cannot romanticise Tamil schools, we cannot dismiss them as a relic of the past either. Tamil schools have a history, a cultural heritage and their own charm. To begin with, it is not the fault of the 500 odd Tamil schools that more than half of them are in deplorable conditions with a few being hazardous to students.

The reality is these schools are within the canvas of economic inequities where sometimes the choice is between going to an impoverished school or having no education at all. The curriculum may incorporate daily sports activities but there is no field, there may be some donated computers but no electricity, eager students but few qualified teachers or other facilities.

The students who go there are also ones who do not have wholesome meals or a reasonable standard of living. Now and then, shocking stories of child labour surface and fade with little investigation.

Alas, the lack of educational opportunities is also cited as the main cause for persistent social ills.

I agree that we want to be a class of people who are still Indian in blood, Malaysian in values and global in intellect. All the same we must have a passion to pursue anything that is a measure of success in the modern world.

Personally, I feel that since less is available in Tamil schools, less is sought as well by them.

We have to address this issue - why are Tamil schools not as adequately equipped as national schools? Are the former not doing well because of the lack of facilities, teachers, and other funds?

What happens to the majority of Malaysians educated in Tamil schools. How many of these students remain in the national educational system till they reach secondary and tertiary levels of education or benefit from the system beyond the secondary level of education?

I believe that the young Indian must derive his self worth from his cultural roots and have the desire for personal advancement.

There has to be a conscious attempt, or more so an attempt with a conscience to give the downtrodden young Indian child equal opportunities to a basic education.

Perhaps the most important of all is that we should lobby the Government to make improvements.

Bulldozing Tamil schools is not an answer. What we need is adequate investment in Tamil education to enable its students to keep pace with students in national schools.

We need a vision for the future of our children. There is no excuse for not ensuring that every village, every district and every estate has a well - equipped school with proper teachers.

I believe that primary education will determine the future of our country. It should command a far larger a component of our National Budget than it does today because the future of a civilisation is written on the walls of a primary school. The writer is the author of a parenting book, "And the Winner is..." and is a speaker on women and children's issues.
Transforming Tamil Schools

New Straits Times (Malaysia)
April 13, 2003
WHEN People's Progressive Party president Datuk M. Kayveas was quoted in a Chinese daily as saying that Tamil schools should be closed because they found it difficult to develop talent for the country and many were operating under trying conditions, he created a furore among the Indian community. Leaders from the MIC criticised him and a member of the DAP Socialist Youth lodged a police report claiming he had violated the Sedition Act.

In response, the PPP president said that he had not called for the closure of Tamil schools, claiming that he had been misquoted and his remarks taken out of context. When criticisms continued, he "clarified" what he said. His "clarification" consisted of two predictions. Firstly, he predicted that at the "rate the Tamil schools are progressing, they will die a natural death. There is no need to close them down." Secondly,he predicted that the Tamil language would slowly diminish and that in another 10 to 20 years it might no longer be used at all by Malaysian Indians. When the "clarification" did not seem to appease his critics, he revealed plans to lodge a police report against the political parties which had lodged police reports against him and to sue a Tamil daily for hurling "baseless allegations".

Kayveas is well aware that vernacular schools are guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. As he put it, "Who am I to say that all primary schools must be closed, as claimed by DAPSY in their report?" Politicians are no strangers to controversy and a seasoned politician like Kayveas would have known that language is a very emotive issue and particularly susceptible to being politicised. The delirious opposition expressed by cultural activists towards the move to teach Science and Mathematics in
English is an example of the potentially explosive nature of the politics of language.

The PPP president's "clarification" has further muddied the waters of dissension raised by his earlier statements. Since language is such an important marker of identity and vernacular schools are regarded as transmitters and custodians of culture, doomsday predictions of their demise can only serve to stoke the fire of controversy. It does not help matters when such crystal-gazing is accompanied by dire warnings that Indians are "slowly becoming third-class citizens".

Relations between members of the ruling political coalition are not helped when the polemic is accompanied by statements such as, "If Tamil schools are doing well, why aren't MIC leaders sending their children to these schools?" Although it is acceptable for the PPP and MIC to compete with each other by taking different positions on issues which affect the Indian community, this should not occur at the expense of jeopardising the coherence of the Barisan Nasional. As Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said earlier this week, "I have always spoken on the need for coalition members to remain strong and problems to be resolved fast, besides avoiding intra-party disputes. I hope such disputes will stop." His advice should be heeded.

Vernacular schools exist not only as constitutionally protected symbols of identity but also in recognition of the importance of the mother tongue when children begin school. Education has tremendous power to transform, but the often forbidding physical and learning environment of many Tamil schools can have a reverse effect. This is why all the parties concerned should instead devote their energies to overcoming the many problems that beset the Tamil schools, ranging from declining enrolments and low levels of achievement to dilapidated buildings and inadequate facilities.
Tamil schools: parents know best
Ratha Mathivanan
Dec 13, 04 3:20pm Malaysiakini
The recent spate of letters on Tamil schools are recycling the same old and rather tiring argument that closing down Tamil schools will do wonders for the community. As usual, facts have become the casualty. Some proponents claim that Tamil schools exist due to the continued manipulation by MIC politicians. The fact is, Tamil schools, in their current tinkered form, continue to exist because the majority of Tamil parents want to and are comfortable sending their children there. National primary schools are not exactly friendly to Indian children from working class backgrounds.

They often endure racial abuses in national schools. Remember the malaysiakini story on how poor Tamil children from squatter areas were being treated in a national primary school? It is not an isolated incident. Of course, the government would deny the problem although the Suhakam annual report for 2003 found that 63.6 percent of students feel discriminated in schools and this was mainly racial discrimination. Let me re-emphasise.

As one Elanjelian had pointed out, for poor Indian children, it's either Tamil education or no education at all. Sivam Sengodan gripes about the lack of language proficiency among Tamil school children. That argument may have held water in the past. It is a comedy to repeat the claim now especially after the MIC abetted in tinkering with the Tamil school system.

 There are now only five exam subjects in primary schools: Tamil, Bahasa Melayu, English, Maths and Science. One cannot possibly teach Bahasa Melayu and Engish in Tamil. Maths and Science are taught in English. So why repeat the same old bunkum about language deficiency? Ushiv claims Tamil is not even used as a medium in educational institutions in India. This is silly. India has over one billion people. Only about 65 million of them are Tamils, living in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Certainly, one would not expect the rest of India to teach their children in Tamil.

They are taught in their mother tongues which are Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam etc. Narayanasamy claims Chinese and Tamil schools keep students divided and are against the sprit of national unity. One fails to understand how this could happen when mother tongue education is imparted only during the first six years of schooling. These children later join the national secondary schools. However, Narayanasamy chose to be silent on the Malay-only residential schools and institutes of higher learning such as the Mara University of Technology.

In reality, narrow chauvinistic views are more likely to be formed in these sort of institutions. Instead of finding soft targets to blame for the Indian community's socio-economic ills, let's be honest in understanding why Tamil Malaysians are struggling to save what is left of the Tamil school system as their cultural heritage. No doubt, the Tamil schools were started by the British to keep the Tamil workers in the plantations during the colonial period. But times have changed.

The Indians have been chased out of the plantations. Today, about 80 per cent of the Indians are in urban areas. Yet, many Indians still want to send their children to Tamil schools. Why? Firstly, they realise the importance of imparting mother tongue education during the early years of schooling. Secondly, many of these parents fear the racial abuse their young children would endure in national primary schools. In some instances, Tamil students are all grouped together in the last class and left there to rot. They hardly receive any education. Thirdly, the government has embarked on an intensive Islamisation drive for over two decades. As a reaction, the Indians see Tamil schools as the last bastion to protect their linguistic, cultural and religious identity. Let's not forget that lots of Tamil cultural and religious activities also take place in these schools.

 Even if Tamil schools are closed down, what certainty is there that the situation of the Indians would be better? The opposite effect may take place. Dr K Anbalakan, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysian (USM), revealed in his PhD study that the situation got worse for the students after three Tamil schools were converted to national schools in Kelantan. Dr R Santhiram, a former USM lecturer, showed in his PhD study that there was no difference in the performance of Indian students from low-income families in secondary schools irrespective of whether they were from Tamil or national primary schools.

 To all those clamouring for the closure of Tamil schools, do provide some concrete evidence to back your claims and show how this move would help the Indians. The anti-Tamil school arguments put forward are not new. It has been going on for many years. It is about time you get off the case of the parents of 100,000 children who go to Tamil schools. I am certain they know what is best for their children. P.S. I am an English educated non-Tamil Indian Malaysian who once strongly clamoured for the closure of Tamil schools. I have since abandoned the stand after spending the weekends in poor Indian neighbourhoods and listening to the views of the people for whom the institution matters most.

Tamil Schools: The Cinderella of Malaysian Education
by K Arumugam , Aliran

One of the most controversial debates about the Tamil schools system is, to have it, or not to have it. Shoes went flying in a meeting some 30 years ago, when an unsuspecting scholar, then the head of Indian Studies Department called for the closure of the Tamil schools as an alternative to saving the children. The Tamil language, rooted in antiquity and which flourished some 2,500 years ago, is one of the oldest surviving languages. Interwoven in the culture and religion, the language has become the emotional make-up and identity of the Tamil masses.

The Tamil schools form part of a struggle by cultural/language advocates in Malaysia to sustain and maintain that history, arguably at a heavy cost to the development of the human capital.

In his pioneering work in 1987, T. Marimuthu, calling the Tamil school the Cinderella of the whole Malaysian educational system, sums it up as follows:

' .. children of the plantation poor, schooled in the neighbourhood Tamil school, have not been able to use the school as an avenue of educational and social mobility. This is due to the host of socio-economic and cultural factors originating from the home as well as the low quality of schooling…failure (of the children) is individualized and not externalized.

The individual takes the blame. In the world of work, .. (they) fill the unskilled, slightly skilled and semi skilled occupational categories.. Now the wheel completes full circle; the son of a plantation worker becomes a better plantation worker.'
At present the Tamil schools accommodate almost 50% of school-going Indian Malaysian children. This article takes a glance at the history and status, the trend and the hope in the Tamil school system.

History and Status
The first Tamil school was set up at the beginning of the 18th century. The Penang Free School, set up by Rev. R. Hutchings in 1816, was reported to contain a class to conduct 'formal' Tamil education in the Straits Settlement. The 1912 Labour Ordinance compelled the planters to set up ad-hoc schools for children of the plantation labour. The number of schools increased to 333 in 1930, 547 in 1938, 741 in 1947 and to its maximum of 888 in 1957. After the country's independence, the shift in education policy and the labour migration led to the closing down of many schools. In 1963 there were 720 such schools. By 2000 there were only 526.

The setting up of the Tamil schools and some Telugu schools was primarily meant for the children from the labour class. The majority of the schools were set up in the plantations merely to fulfil the statutory requirement more than to provide a meaningful education. Termed as partially funded schools, these schools did not fall within the government's public spending expenditure. Located in private lands, they lacked infrastructure, trained teachers and resources, materials and books.

There have been many studies on the Tamil school system - all pointing to the Tamil school system being weak, lacking in facilities with the highest drop out rate and poor performance. None of the studies thus far has put the problem of the Tamil schools in the right perspective. If socio-economic inequality is the determining factor for a child's performance then what happens to the position of similar children in mainstream education. If the medium of instruction is the main culprit for poor performance, then one will find it difficult to explain the good performance of the Chinese medium children.

Without exhaustive analysis of internal and external factors, it is premature for anyone to suggest that Tamil education is a waste.

Tamil Education or No Education

In an unpublished paper, R.Thillainathan, an economist, cautioned in 1988 that for the Tamil children from poor homes it is either 'Tamil education or no education'. He linked factors such as mother tongue language as an immediate communication tool, proximity of schools and cultural shock for Tamil-speaking children from poor homes in a non-Tamil speaking environment. This notion was not completely wrong. From 1990 to year 2000, the enrolment in Tamil schools declined both in relative terms as well as in real numbers.

The year 1993 recorded the highest enrolment of about 104,600 children enrolling in the Tamil schools. However, this number dropped to about 90,280 in year 2000. The drop is despite the fact that during the same period there was an increase in the school-going population. A quantitative estimate of children in the school system for the year 1998, showed some 15,000 Indian children in the age range of 6 to 11 were not enrolled in the school system. It is unlikely that these children belonged to any other group but the working class.

One plausible explanation could be that the period 1990 to 2000 marked an era of rapid development of the economy, in particular the development of agricultural land banks. This led to large scale migration of plantation labour to urban areas, causing an acute drop in the enrolment in the Tamil schools in the plantations. This did not lead to a corresponding increase in the urban school enrolment. This meant that these 15,000 children were not in the school system mainly due to the unavailability of Tamil schools in the urban setting. One can also ask, why were they not in the mainstream schools?

Political Dilemma and Drama
One of the strongest advocates of Tamil education is the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Pointing to the continued existence of the Tamil school system as its achievement (if not for the MIC, there will not be any Tamil schools), the MIC has done its greatest disservice to the poor Indians. The MIC thrived on the weaknesses of the Tamil schools system by co-opting the teachers and headmasters as its members. The culture of paternalism and rhetoric ruled the day. The children never saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a trend that the votes of the Indians became an essential bargaining tool in obtaining federal and state subsidies for the upkeep of the schools. The total weakness of the schools and the lack of governmental intervention is a reflection of the MIC's weak bargaining power within the ruling party.

To date there has not been enough serious effort by the MIC to address the basic issues related to the Tamil schools. It seems reluctant to allow the community the option of confronting the government of the day to do something about the plight of the Tamil schools. Public spending on Tamil schools to date has been woefully lacking.

However, the politics of confrontation, if it can be interpreted as such, helped the Tamil schools during the period 1990 to 1995. M.G. Pandithan, an axed MIC leader who went on to establish the Indian Progressive Front (IPF), which was part of the opposition coalition in 1990, created a split in the Indian votes.

The government, perhaps fearing potential vote swings in a number of parliamentary and state seats where Indians voters made up at least 10% of the electorate, decided to look at the Tamil school problems a little more closely. The allocation under the 6th Malaysia plan (1990-1995) was an unprecedented RM 27,042,000, about 2.14% of the total allocation for education. However, when things returned to normal, Pandithan choosing to support the BN and the MIC thriving on the handouts and allocations, the Indians voted without any reservations for the BN. The resounding BN victory in 1995, ended the edge gained by political bargaining. The budget allocation for Tamil schools in the 7th Malaysia plan (1996-2000) was reduced to half, only RM 10,902,000 or about 1.02% of the total allocation for education.

The allocation for the Tamil schools in the 8th Malaysia plan is expected to far exceed previous amounts primarily due to the increased bargaining power gained by the MIC by virtue of the development of opposition politics and the activism and demands of the NGOs.

The Performance
Are the academic performance of the children and the medium of instruction inter-related? Often the Tamil schools bear the brunt of the blame for the poor performance of the children. R.Santhiram tends to argue that the socio-economic status of the children is more significant than the medium of instruction. His research on selected children from poor socio economic backgrounds in both national schools and Tamil schools did not reveal any significant difference in their performance, except in the Malay language subject.

N. Iyngkaran, supports the argument that there is no relative disadvantage in going to Tamil schools. By comparing the UPSR results for the year 2000 and 2001, Tamil school children performed almost at par with the national average in Mathematics, Science and English, the three common subjects for all the mediums. (See Table)

However, the poorer performance in the Malay language subject compared to the national medium and Chinese medium schools placed the overall pass rate of the Tamil schools among the lowest. In the year 2001, in the Bahasa Melayu Penulisan (Malay language - written) and Bahasa Melayu Pemahaman (Malay language - comprehension) papers the Tamil schools recorded 40% and 55% respectively. For the same subjects, the Chinese schools posted 57% and 66% and the National schools 84% and 88% respectively.

A strong advocate of Tamil schools, Iyngkaran argues that Tamil schoolchildren are not to be regarded as weak in the light of their improved performance in recent times. Given their handicapped position and their socio-economic status, the Tamil schoolchildren have the potential to even out perform their peers in the other medium, if the prerequisites in terms of governmental intervention and community support.

Future of Tamil Schools
Tamil schools are bound to stay. They are a matter of pride and dignity for more than half of Indian Malaysians. To them, the need for an unpolarised system of education bridging the gap of unity and racial understanding is rhetoric. It is also not possible to dismantle mother tongue education, without disrupting the cultural and religious fabric that has provided identity and belonging.

If only unity among the various ethnic groups was a question of mere language! Perhaps, a new dimension in understanding the economic, social and cultural rights of individuals and communities within a frame work of respecting, promoting, protecting and fulfilling such rights should be recognized. It should lead to a discovery of the inner potential of humankind to harness the purpose for life and living - which, one supposes, is the real goal of education.

K. Arumugam is a coordinator of the Group of Concerned Citizens, an Indian-based lobby group formed to initiate discussions on various inter- and intra-community issues.



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