By Nur Aishah Camelia Wong binti Norman Wong

Time and time again, we hear people questioning the position of vernacular schools in Malaysia. Just last year, Pertubuhan Ikatan Guru-guru Muslim Malaysia (iGuru) submitted a petition aiming to declare that Chinese and Tamil primary schools were unconstitutional. Not only that, recently in August 2023, Utusan Malaysia reported that Tun Dr. Mahatir said, “One of the best ways to close the racial divide is through education, and among (the measures that can be taken is) abolishing vernacular schools.”

Before we evaluate the constitutionality of vernacular schools, it’s pertinent to understand their historical background. In the 18th century, Chinese and Indians immigrated to Malaya (now Malaysia) and established their own schools, which were separated from the local Malay schools. During the British colonisation, this was continued with the addition of English schools.The reason the British maintained separate schools for each race was due to their “rule and divide” policy, which was intended to quash any attempt at a political uprising against British rule in Malaya. As a result, the different races didn’t interact with each other, and the seeds of racism were planted. When the Barnes Report 1951 suggested a national school system with Malay and English as the medium of instruction, the Malays readily accepted it as it was a chance to assert Malay as a common medium of instruction. The Chinese community, on the other hand, proposed the Fenn-Wu report, which recommended trilingualism (Malay, English, and Chinese/Tamil) in Chinese and Tamil-medium schools. Then, the Razak Report 1956 was introduced as a compromise, allowing the use of minority languages in vernacular schools while Malay would be the main medium of instruction in national schools.

Now, are vernacular schools constitutional? Let’s take a look at Article 152(1) of the Federal Constitution. It states that Malay is the national language of Malaysia. However, it is subject to a condition whereby Clause 1(a) provides that “no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (otherwise than for official purposes), or from teaching or learning, any other language”.Clause 6 of the same article defines ‘official purposes’ as any purpose of the Government, whether Federal or State, and includes any purpose of a public authority. The term ‘public authority’ here is defined as “a statutory authority exercising powers vested in it by federal or state law” in Article 160(2).

The question is, whether a vernacular school is a public authority? To answer this question, we must refer to the case of Merdeka University. In that case, the court rejected the application of Merdeka University on the grounds that Chinese would be used as the main medium of instruction. However, this case’s decision can’t be applied to the vernacular school argument. In Merdeka University, the word ‘authority’ was emphasised as the operative word, whereby it must comprise some public element and utility. It was pointed out that a university, even if private, clearly has the public element because its establishment is subject to a degree of public control.For example, it is prohibited to establish a university except in accordance with the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (Act 30). Vernacular schools, on the other hand, merely need to be registered with the Ministry of Education. Besides, the constitution of a university must contain provisions that cover all matters set out in the First Schedule of Act 30. Meanwhile, vernacular schools are free to draft their instrument of government with few mandatory provisions.

In Merdeka University, four out of the five judges held that a university is a statutory authority exercising powers vested in it by federal law, making it a public authority. By looking at the differences discussed above, it is clear that vernacular schools are not public authorities. Thus, the medium of instruction in vernacular schools does not fall under ‘official purposes’, thereby making vernacular schools constitutional. Accordingly, in the case of iGuru mentioned earlier, the court held in favour of vernacular schools. Judicial Commissioner Datuk Mohamad Abazafree Abbas stressed that defending vernacular schools does not mean challenging the right of Malay as the national language. He also said, “The framers of the Federal Constitution intended to preserve that as part of the education system. The wishes of our forefathers were that we live in harmony.”

Despite the constitutionality of vernacular schools, people such as Mahatir view them as a barrier to national unity. However, this notion contains fallacies. This is because if we were to take away the rights of the Chinese and Indians to practise their mother tongue, it would lead to tensions among the people. How can we strip them of their ethnic identity and expect them to be “Malaynised” when our country is built upon our diversity? There is no doubt that the Malays are the original people of the land, and most of the Chinese and Indians were brought in the 18th century as a workforce. Nevertheless, the road to independence was a joint effort between the different races in our country. Just take a look at history: our founding fathers formed the Alliance Party by combining UMNO, MCA, and MIC in order to unite the Malays, Chinese, and Indians. This coalition went on to secure independence from the British for the Federation of Malaya in 1956. Moreover, vernacular schools can actually help to unite the races because of the third language learned. For example, an Indian child who goes to a Chinese vernacular school will be able to connect with Chinese people better. 

In conclusion, there should be no further debate on the constitutionality of vernacular schools as the protection of these schools is enshrined in Article 152(1) of the Federal Constitution. Some may still argue that vernacular schools hinder national unity. However, by understanding history, we can recognise the importance of vernacular schools in preserving ethnic and cultural identity. Yes, there are still issues of unity within the current education system. Regardless, politicians should stop targeting vernacular schools; this only serves to create more divisiveness between racial groups. Instead, the focus should be on fostering a sense of shared values and goals, such as giving back to the country. Other than that, we can promote cultural understanding and acceptance by making it a part of the school curriculum. Only by embracing our multicultural heritage will we be able to move forward.


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Categories: LawMajalla


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