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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #85

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

Factors Contributing to Fragmentation

Malaysian institutions, in particular the schools and colleges, contribute substantially to the fragmentation of society. I will deal with this issue more fully in the next chapter.
Among the things the British did right in Malaysia was to introduce the English system of education, even though they did not make any attempt at modifying it to cater to local sensitivities. The model English school was transplanted directly into the Malaysian jungle, right down to the teachers, buildings, and curricula. Were the British to repeat that same experiment today, it would be viewed as the height of imperial folly and arrogance. It is a recipe for disaster not to pay deference to local cultural nuances.
The British did not build many schools, just enough to satisfy their colonial conscience. What they lacked in quantity, these schools more than made up in quality. They were superb and attracted all Malaysians, but located as they were in major towns, they enrolled a disproportionate number of children of urban dwellers, mainly non-Malays.
These students with their superior education later became the country’s leaders. As they had spent their younger days together, they had readymade social bonding. This helped considerably in smoothing over the inevitable political and other differences. The bulk of the citizens however went to separate vernacular schools; they did not benefit from mixing with other than their own kind. Nonetheless seeing the pattern of cordiality and cooperation set by their leaders, they followed suit. It was the promise of such interracial cooperation that prompted the British to grant Malaysia its independence.
The number of such schools rapidly expanded following independence, opening up opportunities for Malays to partake in this superior education. Now more young Malaysians could study together in a multiracial environment. The pattern began to unravel in the 1980s with the mandate making Malay the exclusive language of instruction in national schools. Non-Malays readily adjusted to this, realizing the importance of the national language. Emboldened with this early and easy success, and in a further attempt at imposing Malay cultural hegemony, Malay nationalists began making Islam increasingly important at these schools. The school ambience became decidedly more Islamic. Female students had to wear tudong; they could not wear short skirts or partake in sports. School assemblies began adopting the trappings of Islamic religious rituals.
The tempo of Islamization was increased to enhance the Islamic credentials of whoever was the Minister of Education. The man who pushed this to its extreme was Anwar Ibrahim.
The result was that non-Muslims felt increasingly out of place in national schools and began abandoning the system for vernacular schools where their classmates would only be their own kind. Thus the pattern of racial segregation in schools seen during colonial times returned, this time voluntarily and with a vengeance.
This Islamization also affects Malays. Those who feel that it has not gone far enough also abandon the national schools for religious ones, where Islam consumes an even greater portion of the curriculum. Those who feel that Islamic subjects are taking too much time at the expense of important secular subjects like science and mathematics, send their children to Chinese schools. The affluent and influential few send theirs abroad or to local international schools.
I cannot help but imagine where Malays would be today had our leaders not tinkered too radically with the excellent school system left behind by the British.
Had the government merely increased the number of English schools especially in rural areas (to increase access to the Malays) but retained the curriculum and English as the medium of instruction, and at the same time caved in to the demands of the Chinese and Indians by letting them expand their vernacular schools, the situation today would be far different. Malays would be fluent in English and their skills in demand globally, while the Chinese and Indians would be trapped in their own racial enclaves. This is the price Malays have paid and are continuing to pay for our excessive nationalism, especially in matters of language.
Beyond the school, this pattern of self-segregation continues through in the colleges and universities. This segregation of our young during their formative years is the major factor contributing to the fragmentation of Malaysian society. Unless corrected, it would be the nation’s undoing.

Next: Minorities in America and Malaysia


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