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Oct 9, 2000 (Malaysiakini)

Is abolishing Tamil schools the solution?
M Nadarajah

In the last couple of weeks there have been a good deal of interesting and important comments made on the Tamil/Indian
Malaysian community. The guiding thread in all these comments has been the problems faced by the community, the causes of
the problems within the community and suggestions of corrective measures. Watson Road Tamil School, Port Klang.

The most dramatic problem that took a lot of space in the mainstream media and caught a lot people's attention recently was about the menace of gangsterism in the community.

If one surveys the various comments carefully, three causes for the problems of the Tamil Malaysian community come to mind. These causes are economic and political marginalisation; Tamil cinema; and Tamil schools.

No benefits

Many middle- and upper-middle class Tamil/Indian Malaysians hold a view that Tamil schools are practically useless. Students in Tamil schools do not benefit either educationally or economically. And, worse, Tamil schools have become a hotbed for nurturing and sustaining vices and gangsterism.

So why maintain an institution that does not do any good for the Tamil Malaysian community and generally embarrasses the Indian community. Their solution: Get rid of Tamil schools.

On the surface this seems like a reasonable proposal. But is it? The proposal is based on the assumption that in comparison to Tamil education, putting Tamil Malaysians in the national type schools will solve the educational and economic needs of the community and that the community would eventually gain.

On what basis is this assumption really made? If the national type schools are doing better, why are they doing better in comparison to Tamil schools? To make sense of these questions, we need to look at some basics.

What is education for? What are its goals?

Simply put, education must be able to prepare young people in terms of cognitive, affective and motor skills so that they are prepared to meet the needs of the economy (which is the economic agenda of education).

Secondly, education must be geared towards producing youth who are informed, sensitive and critically responsive to one's social and natural surroundings (the "active citizenship"/political agenda of education).

Lastly, it has to groom young people to actively sustain and live a cultural form of life (the cultural agenda of education).

In a multi-cultural environment, all these inter-related and inter-dependent aspects are really much more complicated.

To continue with the questions, what is the basis of the "abandon Tamil schools" argument? The Tamils are asked to dump Tamil schools because the critics perceive that the national type schools are better equipped to achieve the economic agenda of modern education. Or, it is assumed that students going through the national type schools seem to be able to perform
well economically later on in their life.

Really, the critics of Tamil schools only have this to sustain their arguments. Because they feel that Tamil education gets us "nowhere here" (read: does not give young Tamils in Malaysia bargaining power in the labour market), Tamil schools need to go.

In other words, Tamil schools have failed in their economic agenda and therefore have no right to exist. (Of course, some even feel that they have failed in their cultural agenda, having become a breeding ground of, say, problems like gangsterism.)

As one recent critic suggested, Tamil education is useful perhaps only in Tamil Nadu, India, from where Tamils come from, but certainly not in Malaysia. Though seemingly plausible, this position is really practically shortsighted, culturally suicidal and politically naïve.

Cultural agenda

We need answers to many critical questions before we can even start thinking or understanding the consequences of doing away with an institution. It is easy to do away with an institution but difficult to build one.

In fact, I don't think the critics have even thought about the sheer practical problems that will ensue if the Tamil schools are closed down. Education even in this form for many Tamil children will become practically unavailable. And what will happen to all the teachers? This suggestion looks like another recipe for further marginalisation.

There are more questions. Have we done enough longitudinal investigations to show whether the majority of Malaysians educated in Tamil schools are doing well or not given the social, economic and political odds faced by Tamils and their institutions?

In fact, if the above question is answered affirmatively, there will be nothing to criticise, and therefore no critics, within the present framework. To prove that this will be so, we need not look very far: just take a look at Chinese education in this country.

Have the critics really explored why the Tamil schools are not doing as well as the national type schools in relation to the economic agenda? In this
context, people like to compare Tamil education with Chinese education and ask an unreasonable question: "Why can't the Tamils/Indians organise their education like the Chinese?"

In fact, it is behind such kinds of questions that the focus on the responsibility of the government in a multi-ethnic society is lost. The comparison is really insensitive to the distinctive trajectories of the histories of the Chinese and the Tamil/Indian people in Malaya, and later Malaysia. Of course, the leadership of the Indian community is also certainly to be blamed.

To continue, have we studied the career path of students in the national type schools for purposes of comparison with those who are being educated in their mother tongue, in this case Tamil? How many students from poor Tamil/Indian/Malaysian families 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?

What are the types of career paths available to young Tamils/Indians? Does ethnicity influence different career paths? Is the different educational stream (Tamil stream or national stream) the primary reason that affects a young Tamil/Indian's career path and economic well-being within our ethnically charged socio-cultural environment?

The critics seem to be unaware of an important goal of education: the cultural agenda of education. In considering this, have we done our homework to find out which stream helps greater self-development and culturally stronger identity formation? Have the critics considered the impact of education through non-mother tongue medium on children?

What is the status of ethnic/mother tongue education in this country? What is our commitment to multiculturalism and educating young Malaysians in multicultural competencies?

What is our commitment to a culturally diverse and active national community? Is mother tongue education the responsibility of a particular ethnic community or the national government? What is the Malaysian government doing for the education of the Tamil minority - and other minorities - in their mother tongue?

Government's business

I think there is a need to evaluate the extensive research available relating mother tongue education to intellectual and emotional, and consequently, the self-development of a child. Yes, there are practical and governance problems about realising mother tongue education, the goals of multicultural education or nation building. However, burying our head in the sand like an
ostrich will not certainly be helpful in resolving them!

Is it really difficult for a society and its government - if it only had the political will - to make the Tamil education stream sufficiently productive by upgrading the schools and its facilities and by improving the standard of its teachers and their performance?

In attacking Tamil school and Tamil education, critics are careful to overlook or avoid an in-depth reflection on the responsibility of a government in educating its citizens in a multi-ethnic society or on the cultural goal of education. There seem to be little realisation about the direct consequence of this on the economic agenda of education.

In fact, some will even tell us that we should stop demanding the government for everything. But education is not just anything. It is about creating the "soul" of a community and the nation. It is perhaps not the interest of "this government" but it certainly must be the business of "the government".

There are in fact more areas in which we do not have sufficient information. For instance, how do our teachers deal with ethnicity in a multi-ethnic classroom? It would be naïve to believe that all our primary and secondary schoolteachers are ethnically neutral and imbued with multi-racial/multi-ethnic wisdom. There have been many cases of cultural and ethnic insensitivity and abuse in Malaysian schools. Has anyone considered what would have been the impact of this on students'

Many cases reported in the mainstream newspapers involved Tamil/Indian children in the multi-ethnic national educational system. While such events
have been reported in the daily newspapers, I have not read much on how teachers have been taken to task or made accountable for their ethnic insensitivity. Such a kind of situation certainly affects the performance and morale of Tamil/Indian children, as it must children of any other ethnic community.

Ornamental reason

A critic of Tamil education recently suggested that Tamil language be taught in a casual and not in an institutionalised way. There is great danger in this. This is a sure recipe for loss of mother tongue in the long run. Language teaching needs to be institutionalised, transmitted and used inter-generationally. There must be social avenues to keep it a living language
not just left to the interest on this or that individual or this or that parent. To preserve a culture for ornamental reasons is to insult it. The suggestions of the critic are a sure pathway to the "extinction" of a language (at least from the Malaysian environment).

The Malaysian national educational system is hardly multicultural in content and/or practice. Our cultural policy is hardly clear or precise about its approach to mother tongues - certainly more than just Bahasa Melayu, Mandarin, or Tamil - in Malaysia or about paying attention to building multi-ethnic/cultural competencies. Even in areas of stated intentions to introduce, at the tertiary level, courses on civilisations, civilisations other that the Islamic one has not been adequately addressed.

Thus, the national educational system is an utter failure in terms of education's cultural agenda. Our national educational system is hardly the place to look for an active and informed support for ethnic cultural diversity in this country. The market, mediated by the national educational system, influences a national consumerist cultural outlook. A subterranean theme of the national educational system is to create more of the same, to standardise. There is an Americanisation of a public.

In Malaysia, ethnically compartmentalised thinking and action in relation to what I think are national issues, systematic long-term official neglect of ethnic cultural institutions, suggestions of legal difficulties to take corrective actions to improve or upgrade Tamil schools, poor leadership and untimely political intervention have the direct potential of killing Tamil schools and
education eventually. We really don't need critics.But there are hardly any good reasons for dumping Tamil schools or mother
tongue education. In fact, we will be going against an important social current of the present millennium - the active protection and promotion of enlightened ethnic cultural diversity.

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