The Malaysian educational dilemma

The country is experiencing an alarming rise in ethnic, religious and regional polarization. That’s not good news for those trying to reform the country’s near-segregated education system.

The Malaysian educational dilemma

Scholars and observers of the Malaysian political scene are noting an increasing sense of polarization and division along ethnic, religious and regional lines, which according to more pessimistic observers, threatens the very fabric of its society and undermines the ability of Malaysia to meet its developmental goals. Malaysia appears to be witnessing an increase in racial and religious intolerance, and the reasons and causes of this are now the subject of a growing scholarly and media industry, clearly alarmed about the state of both ethnic and religious relations.

What, however, can be done about it? What fuels it? Can there be institutional responses to it, and if so, what?

Some active participants in Malaysian public discourse have suggested that part of the solution lies in making more explicit the Rukunegara, which are Malaysia’s national principles, within the preamble of the Constitution. The aim here is that by making the Rukunegara the preamble, it will provide a guide and establish the “overriding philosophy” of the Malaysian nation, and thus guidance and leadership for Malaysians to understand their national identity (Faruqi, 2017). The desire is to find a way to embed principles of national unity as a guiding philosophy or canopy for the Constitution. Others have pointed to the issue of education and, specifically, to the role and place of schools in Malaysian society.

For critics of contemporary education, schools must play a key role in nation-building and nation-binding. If, for example, the Rukunegara were to be made the guiding philosophy of the Malaysian nation, what concrete institutional change in Malaysia would help to support these principles of unity and embed them more concretely within society? Is education the key? If it is, then how can schooling contribute to a sense of national unity and development for the common good? Debate about education is critical to a sense of national purpose, and this essay shall argue in support of engaging the problems of “overriding philosophy” and national unity.

The Malaysian education system is also a product of Malaysia’s historical and social context, and the divisions and arguments around it will rely on a “shared consensus” if reform is to be undertaken (Chan, 2016). Shared consensus, however, is far from how we would characterize opinions on Malaysian national unity and education reform.

Critics of Malaysia’s plural schooling system argue that this too contributes to the growing ethnic and religious divisions, and the mistrust that increasingly permeates Malaysian public discourse. Fueled by parents being able to choose alternatives to national schools and also government-supported preferential policies, the goals of national integration seem elusive. As Malaysian academics Wirawani Kamarulzaman and Rosnani Hashim point out: “Decreasing numbers of diversity in schools must be due to the reason that parents and students have various school options to choose from.” Academics Santhiram R Raman and Tan Yao Sua add: “While Malaysia’s education system tries to provide a common system of mainstream education to foster national integration among the various ethnic groups, it also allows for alternative streams of education delivery at all levels of education to fulfill divergent needs and interests.

Unfortunately, these alternative streams are divided along ethnic lines and have severely undermined the professed objective of using education as a tool of nation building. Some of these alternative streams have their historical roots, while others are of more recent creation.” The emphasis in the debate on national unity has been on the vernacular and national schools, with most emphasis falling on a critique of vernacular schooling as adding to or encouraging disunity and fractionalization. This is not to say that there have not been criticisms of religious schools as well as the growth of international schools. Religious and class divisions are also critical issues that animate discussions about national unity and schooling. The emphasis in the debate on national unity seems, however, to fall most heavily on the vernacular/national school division. In regard to criticism of vernacular schools as they are currently structured, especially at the primary level, we will focus on two general types of criticisms: first, critics who view the vernacular schools as essentially racist or generating racist attitudes in their students, and second, those who view the problem of schooling in Malaysia as a problem of communalization that is occurring in both the vernacular and national schools. We will return to this distinction later and tease out why it is important in the debate about national schools and national unity.

Plural society and a consociational solution

How can we understand the essential social and political problem of communalism that Malaysia faces? What lies underneath the divisions and debate around its unity and schooling? To understand the problems of communalism and division in Malaysia, one must understand the impact of its colonial history.

The basic problem of societies such as Malaysia has been largely understood against the backdrop of British colonial-era writer JS Furnivall’s famous critique of plural societies. Furnivall’s work is still a classic go-to guide for scholars interested in understanding Southeast Asian societies, and “one of the most popular and important terminologies is plural society, a term used by Furnivall over seven decades ago” (Embong, 2002). According to Furnivall, a plural society created under conditions of colonialism is one “consisting of several groups living side by side but separately, not united for the common welfare or for any common end, but divided from one another by the common desire for individual profit. In such a society, economic relations predominate over all other aspects of life; it is inherently unstable and, unless held together by some master force, must founder in anarchy.” Furnivall’s classic critique of plural societies has been a staple of scholarship in regard to Malaysia and understanding its social and cultural divisions.

Plural societies, according to Furnivall, are societies where different ethnic/cultural groups exist side by side and connect in the marketplace, but otherwise have little in common with each other. Plural societies face difficulty in normative integration, and in extreme cases, face problems with political and social stability. The colonial inheritance of a plural society and the need to somehow build a successful nation from these difficult roots provided early Malaysian nation-builders with significant challenges. “Plural society

… evolved to service the developing colonial economy” (Andaya and Andaya, 1982). In other words, plural society was fit for purpose for a colonial administration that sought to “divide and rule” and extract value from its colonies. However, how would a newly independent nation manage the divisions that had served the colonial power? How could nation-builders mange the contradictions and tensions bequeathed to them by their colonial history? What institutional arrangements would work to maintain national unity and political stability?


As a new nation that needed to find a way to maintain stability, the ideal of developing normative integration across communal groups in society gave way to a more pragmatic accommodation of their interests. At the political level, these challenges were met by elite bargain, or pact. Such a pact is known as a consociational arrangement. Plural societies such as Malaysia have functioned most effectively under consociational political arrangements. Such arrangements, made famous in the analysis of Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart, place an emphasis on power-sharing among representatives of different groups as a way of ensuring stability and buy-in to the process of governance. Stability can be maintained despite social and institutional cleavages. Lijphart famously argued that “consociational democracy means government by elite cartel designed to turn a democracy with a fragmented political culture into a stable democracy.” In a plural society such as Malaysia, consociational negotiation occurs at the elite level, and cultural interests are accommodated and negotiated. The nature of Malaysia’s political development has maintained stability – arguably at the expense of attaining national integration.

The core issue at stake in consociational democracies is that they provide a way for plural societies to fashion a stable democratic form of governance, which takes into account the diverse interests of a divided and diverse society without seeking any kind of false the strengths and weaknesses of the Malaysian social contract based on the consociational model. A central component of consociational governance is interethnic bargaining. This can occur with a certain measure of tension and such bargaining, which is often around issues of cultural and ethnic rights and position, has unity or homogenization. There is social cohesion, but this is formed in the context of difference and diversity. The effect of consociational governance on the broader society is to reinforce and legitimize social divisions, and these divisions in turn reinforce the legitimacy of the consociational model. Classically understood, plural societies such as Malaysia lack the ability to achieve normative integration, yet successful consociational arrangements can lead to and support a certain degree of cohesion.


The political system in Malaysia, which has maintained stability yet at the same time failed to deliver national integration, shows the strengths and weaknesses of the Malaysian social contract based on the consociational model. A central component of consociational governance is interethnic bargaining. This can occur with a certain measure of tension and such bargaining, which is often around issues of cultural and ethnic rights and position, has in the case of schooling often been subject to genuine tension and divisiveness. Thus, seeking agreement and compromise becomes a critical factor in maintaining social stability, despite the obvious tensions generated by the divisions and diverse interests of plural society. As Malaysian academic Shamsul Amri Baharuddin points out: “Interethnic bargaining was critical to maintaining some measure of sociopolitical stability within multiethnic Malaya.” He adds: “ ‘Vernacularisation’ at the national level of Malaysia’s modern electoral politics, namely in the form of ethnic-based political parties that survive on ethnic support and loyalty, further shapes the making of insulated, segregated and ethnicized Malaysians who are at home only in their own vernacular social collectives. In other words, Malaysians are usually united or homogenized within their respective ethnic psychic realms within everyday life.”

In essence, ethnic contestation in Malaysia has largely been domesticated through a political settlement, which has maintained communal division while at the same time stabilizing tensions. One of the functions of communally based parties in a conscociational system is to defend and support the institutions that function as a result of social cleavages, and maintain such cleavages. The core point to make in regard to the consociational model is that its justification lies in the fact that it can deliver stability given the way in which such a system tends to impede progress in achieving national unity. Ethnic contestation is domesticated to an extent – but not eliminated. A core institution where these divisions, compromises and less-than-perfect solutions are arrived at is the schooling system.

Schooling and the promise of consociational democracy

The history of colonial schooling in Malaysia is often viewed through the prism of a colonial mission of divide and conquer. The historical genesis of the Malaysian plural schooling system – the way in which the communal and divided system of schooling meshed well with policies aimed at colonial economic exploitation – suggests that those historians who view it within the broader framework of colonial divide and rule are not without merit (Tan, 2013). With an emphasis on economic advancement and vernacular and plural educational structures, education tended to reinforce, or at a minimum did not lessen, communal prejudices, and ultimately reinforced a fundamental characteristic of plural society: the identification of race with economic function. Such an approach was “generally welcomed by British colonial interests” and reinforced communal division and economic segmentation (Rudner, 1987).

Under such conditions, and given the needs of a colonially dominated plural economy, a plural educational system worked well. Charles Hirschman, the American sociologist, makes the point: “The colonial education system (as with other aspects of the colonial regime) appears to have been inherently conservative. The objective was not to change the social structure for the sake of progress, but rather make the existing social structure a bit more efficient.”

Canadian international affairs expert Martin Rudner, meanwhile, notes that “education systems that emerged during the colonial period reflected this divergence of goals between differential communal commitments and manpower training, where ethnic pluralism was very largely coterminous with the dualistic pattern of economic development.” Malaysian academic Shamsul Amri Baharuddin points out that prior to independence, colonial policies encouraged communal segregation and that “the segregation consolidated the ethnic physical and social enclaves that were accentuated then by the vernacular education system.” In fact, the division between vernacular and national schooling, according to Shamsul, has accentuated a “thickening of barriers, creating ethnic insulation and segregation at the individual level.”

Andaya and Andaya point out that the early nation-builders understood that: “The separate educational systems which had developed under British colonial rule were responsible for divergent and distinct outlooks on Malaya as a homeland. If the new nation were to survive and flourish, one of its top priorities would have to be the inculcation of common ideals and aspirations based upon the premise that Malaya could arouse the allegiance of all its population. This was a formidable goal but vital if the country were to remain united. While the economic and educational priorities of the colonial government had served to compartmentalize Malaysian society, it was hoped that the political institutions the British had established would be able to withstand the strains of a divided society long enough for a united nation to emerge” (Andaya and Andaya, 1982).

Post-independence nation-builders, when examining the difficult issues of forging a cohesive and sustainable polity from a plural society, were faced with educational corollaries to the problems that were faced in regard to forging effective governance. What kind of schooling system best suited a newly independent nation? What kind of schooling system could both generate unity

and ensure stability for the new nation? If, as Raman and Tan argue, “Education during the colonial period was essentially a divisive force in society and tended to support its ethnic plural population,” then the challenge of education became front and center – the challenge of what kind of democracy Malaysia would be. In terms of schooling, the core line of division was between those who argued for a unitary schooling system and those who maintained a preference for a plural one (Tan and Teoh, 2014). Ultimately, the result in terms of Malaysian policy has been to support the continuance of a plural schooling system. Support for this has been not without tension: when arguments about Malaysian education occur, communal tension is not far behind.

Ultimately, Malaysia’s plural schooling makes sense in a society where efforts to forge a homogenous consensus or fully fledged normative integration meets communal resistance, and where a consociational agreement ensures stability. Societies such as Malaysia, which trade stability at the expense of normative integration function, develop in a state described by keen observers of Malaysian life as a “stable tension” (Shamsul, 2009). What are the results for our understanding of schooling when the consociational model frays and the stabilizing input of an elite bargain breaks down?






Single-stream versus vernacular schooling

More recent critics of the current structure of Malaysia’s education system have also focused on the need to build a unitary schooling system. The discourse in more recent debates centers on the concept of single-stream schooling, and the critique of this position as an example of “singularism.” This concept appears to be an echo of the words of the 1951 Fenn-Wu Report with its criticism of “singleness of tongue.”

Previously, we drew attention to two types of criticisms that we want to focus on in the debate: first, those critics who view the vernacular schools as essentially racist or generating racist attitudes in their students; and second, those who view the problem of education in Malaysia as a problem of communalization, which is occurring in both the vernacular and national schools. We are drawing attention to these two streams, and have drawn a rather firm distinction between them, because they reveal much about the difficulties of having a sensible debate on the need to forge national unity and the role schools can play in this. Furthermore, we are making a distinction between supporters of single-stream and one type of school arguments that focus on drawing our attention to the way in which arguments for the national school can either be focused on an inclusive rhetoric that avoids singling out a particular ethnic group, and a rhetoric that avoids this and instead focuses on building more inclusive institutions. This is critical if arguments over the place and role of the national school are to avoid being colonized by the very communalism that critics are so keen to avoid.

Of course, making this division entails teasing out certain tendencies in the discourse on single-stream education in the interest of finding a solid middle ground. One should look at the history of attempts to propose a unitary system, beginning with the 1951 Barnes Report, which hoped that Malaysians would “set aside their vernacular attachments.” With the response to the Fenn-Wu Report, with its defense of vernacular schooling, we see how easily arguments for unitary national schools can be misconstrued as communal themselves and lead to significant tensions. Even when the aims and objectives of unitary school reformers are above reproach, the downward sticky pull of communalism derails the best-laid plans. Any reform of Malaysia’s education system must bring people along with it. And one of the most important aspects of this is that the discourse of reform must not be grounded in blaming any particular group or ethnicity for the problems Malaysia faces, but rather recognizing that communalism is a shared problem and responsibility, and that all Malaysians also share in a desire to advance the nation and build a stronger, more inclusive sense of national unity and belonging.

The first stream of criticism is most well known in relation to the position of Perkasa, a Malay rights pressure group (Malay Mail, 2016), and perhaps more articulately put by controversial academic Mohd Ridhuan Tee Abdullah. Ridhuan Tee has argued that a strong strain of racism exists in Chinese vernacular schools and that such racism must not be rewarded by further government support. Tee’s views on racism in vernacular schools should, however, be balanced by understanding that he also recognizes the strengths that Chinese schools have. The argument put by Ridhuan Tee in the popular media, it should be noted, can be compared to his more scholarly writings. These writings show more balance and less focus on incendiary rhetoric.

Arguments put for the national school framed in this way cannot but generate significant opposition and division. In racially divided societies with a history of horizontal inequalities and intercommunal distrust, focusing arguments for national schools on criticisms of particular groups and their institutions can only lend credence to the suspicion that the argument for the national school is a surrogate for communal sentiment. Such arguments that overemphasize divisive issues and rely on the baiting of particular ethnic groups tend to inflame opposition and result in significant pushback.

The second stream of arguments are more inclusively oriented and do not rely on demonizing one particular ethnic group, but rather aim to make the national schools more inclusive. Unifiers seek to overcome the spread of communalism within Malaysian society more broadly, and any criticism of vernacular schools must be seen in this context. In such a discourse, national one-stream education is focused on that which is truly public, inclusive and national in nature. The kinds of critics who advance this alternative and a more progressive approach to the singlestream argument include academic Farish Noor, politician Teo Kok Seong and historian Koo Kay Kim, who have also pointed out the importance of education for national unity. As Farish Noor wrote: “My concern about what is happening in Malaysia today is that the continued existence of separate language

schools means that we do not know where the mainstream is any longer. It beggars belief that in a plural society like ours, young children may spend their entire childhood in the company of other children of the same culturallinguistic background, and need not meet or even shake hands with another Malaysian child of a different culture or religion. Worse still, this trend towards linguistic-cultural exclusivism seems to be on the rise among all the communities of the country. So we are back to the original question: how can we build a Malaysian nation if Malaysian children don’t even go to the same schools, together?”

Seong, who supports single-stream schooling, has pointed out that: “Even the national schools are racially polarized. National schools are composed of 90 percent Malays, Chinese vernacular schools are made up of 90 percent Chinese, while Tamil schools are 100 percent Indians.” This observation is supported by many others, who point out that the problem of communalization in schooling is common to all sectors of the Malaysian system.

Kim, who was a co-author of the Rukunegara, has argued cogently that if Malaysia is to realize a deeper and more sustainable sense of national unity, then Malaysians must consider moving away from the communal system it has inherited from the country’s colonial era. To do this requires enhancing and improving national schools. According to Kim, what is needed in Malaysia to foster unity is “one type of school,” and that national unity must be a central goal of education. Viewed from this perspective, the problem is not so much a focus only on the communal nature of vernacular schools, but the increasingly communal nature of all schools, national and vernacular (Hamid, 2006). In this kind of argument, students from diverse backgrounds bring benefits to the national school, and national unity is engendered not through trying to make everyone the same, but rather through interacting and engaging with each other. One example where this has been tried in Malaysia has been the “Vision School” program, and the difficulties and resistance to this model are sobering for supporters of reforming education in Malaysia (Chin, 2010).


There is a critical distinction within the single-stream debate. It is between those whose support for the national school is characterized by the very racial intolerance and ethnic blaming that a single-stream is supposed to address and overcome, and those whose commitment to the national school is truly inclusive and who seek to decommunalize not only the vernacular schools, but the national schools as well. The fact that some of those who argue for the single-stream replicate and enflame racism and stereotyping of minority communities does not augur well for the debate over national schooling and national unity. This point reinforces and reminds us of the historical difficulty that faces reformers who wish to build unifying institutions in Malaysia.

National unity is not the same as homogeneity and the principle of inclusivity and mutual respect of difference is a central plank in more progressive arguments for singlestream/one type of school arguments. If singlestream is interpreted to entail “singularism,” as the United Chinese School Committees Association has argued in response to Perkasa’s call for single-stream education, then support for national schools as a unifying institution will flounder on the rocks of communal distrust (MCN, 2014). In fact, the way in which supporters of vernacular schools have been able to point to organizations such as Perkasa that support the single-stream option as an example of “singularism” shows how the discourse of a unifying national school can be hijacked and reframed to enflame the very divisions and communal tensions that more moderate supporters of national schools seek to overcome. It is easy to dismiss calls for a unitary schooling system in Malaysia when the media privileges and focuses on the most inflammatory and incendiary contributions to this position. As Farish Noor points out: “In any plural society, there are bound to be both centrifugal forces and centripetal forces, at times working against each other. To build a Malaysian nation means necessarily seeking those positive centripetal forces that want there to be a Malaysian nation that we can all call home. Parties should actively seek these forces, and lend their support to Malaysians who want there to be a national language, a national educational system and a national culture that everyone can identify with.”

The power and influence of negative centrifugal forces in Malaysia, and the downward sticky pull of communal sentiment, are reinforced through partisan political agendas that constantly pull people apart. This means that arguments for the national school and those who argue for it must do all in their power to correct and allay fears that the agenda of the national school is not somehow reducible to a communal agenda. It is ironic that one of the most potent points of criticism of those who argue for single-streamed education is that they are in fact pushing a communal and divisive agenda. Those nation-builders who have sought to argue for single-stream and one type of school options find the inclusive and temperate articulation of their views oversimplified and drowned out in a media landscape that immediately focuses on and gives importance to voices that argue in more incendiary and provocative terms, meshing with long-held communalist prejudices.

The fraying of consociationalism in Malaysia points to the increasing importance of binding institutions such as schools, and the increasing need to bind the Malaysian polity to the ethos and values that nation-builders had struggled and fought hard to maintain. Such an agenda brings us back, perhaps, to where we began our discussion: the calls for national unity rooted not in a false homogenization but rather in moderation, mutual respect and tolerance. These centripetal principles that ground the Rukunegara can be found in the noncommunalist support for one type of school. The fraying of the consociational model in Malaysia makes educational reform according to the principles of national unity all the more important – and all the more difficult to achieve.

James K Campbell is an independent writer and researcher based in Melbourne.

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