On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Be practical on issue of language studies

With China having emerged as the world's biggest economy, we realised that our daughter must have good grounding in Chinese studies. It would be different if she were to have just an hour daily of Chinese language class in primary school.

During my primary schooldays at St Xavier's Institution, I signed up for Chinese studies under the Pupil's Own Language programme. As far as I can recall, it was a flop because many of us did not take the lessons seriously – there was no compulsory examination. Until now, I cannot write my name in Chinese.

If we want to study any language well we have to spend time on it, not just an hour or two a week.

My parents, both Chinese-educated, decided to send their three sons to a Christian missionary school during the 1960s also for economic reasons.

England was an economic powerhouse and it was probably the only country then where Malaysians could send their children to university. Degrees from Taiwan were not recognised then and not many school-leavers from Chinese-medium schools could enter British universities because they lacked proficiency in the language.

So, England was the number one choice. In the 1980s, the United States and Canada opened their doors to Malaysians; a decade later, as the strength of our currency depreciated, we shifted our education opportunities to Australia.

Again it was for pragmatic reasons.

Like my parents, my wife and I think about how our daughter will excel in her studies and what she would grow up to be. We think of what she can accomplish for Malaysia.

She, too, wants to stay in Malaysia and help the country that we are all proud of. Irrespective of what schools we go to, we are loyal to Malaysia.

Today, more and more foreigners, including many Westerners, are sending their children to study Chinese in Beijing universities. They want their children to speak Chinese the Beijing way and to understand the locals better. That aside, many value the importance of networking.

Malaysia and Singapore, for example, have a business edge over other Asean countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia when it comes to doing business with China because of cultural and ethnic links.

Similarly, the Indian business community in Malaysia and Singapore has the advantage when it comes to India, another emerging global player. But in the case of India, English is widely spoken.

The cultural diversity should be regarded as an asset. In a globalised world, multi-culturalism has become the keyword. For some nationalists who want to "keep a round world in their square peg", they would be left behind.

The demand for Chinese mother-tongue education is natural, especially in urban areas like Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Negri Sembilan and Selangor because many Malaysians see its importance in the global context.

The request by the MCA for more mother-tongue allocation under the 9th Malaysia Plan is nothing unusual. It has always been an MCA agenda and Barisan Nasional, through its tolerant leadership, has always supported it.

It is not an issue drawn up by Chinese associations and organisations. I can say, without any prejudice, that this is the sentiment of the majority of the Chinese community.

But we must also examine the importance of quality education in schools.

Learning a language because it is good for business should not be the only criteria. In the past, if many of us studied in English-medium schools, especially the missionary schools, it was because our parents believed that the standard of teaching was good. They were right.

Those who have spoken up against vernacular schools seem to have ignored the fact that almost 90% of Chinese primary school students entered national schools at Form One. Only a small percentage joined private schools.

From the manner in which some reporters posed their questions and the replies from some politicians, I gathered that some of our media and politician friends do not realise this.

I share their concern about our children mixing with one another more and certainly our national education system should reach greater heights. More resources should be channelled into national schools to make them attractive to students of all races.

We must also support the Students Integration Programme, mooted by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he was Education Minister in 1987. Under the programme, vernacular and national primary school students would have joint extracurricular activities to boost interaction and mutual understanding.

Similarly, Chinese educationists should stop talking about building more Chinese schools if there is no corresponding increase in the number of Chinese teachers.

There may be a demand for Chinese schools in urban areas but in some villages, there are more Malay or Indian students than Chinese. In these cases, the schools should be relocated.

Education should not be politicised and our politicians and editors should not be reactionary and make baseless accusations. It would not happen if we see issues from a Malaysian angle.