Why are so many non-Chinese enrolled in this Johor Chinese school?

China is expected to play a bigger role in infrastructure development in Malaysia - Photograph: South China Morning Post

Anil Netto looks at possible factors behind the rising number of non-Chinese Malaysians enrolling in Chinese vernacular schools.

A Chinese vernacular school in Johor has received a record number of new non-Chinese Malaysians pupils, who make up more than half of its latest intake for the current year, raising eyebrows among many Malaysians.

This report from theSun:

PETALING JAYA: Non-Chinese make up more than 50% of the new intake of SJK© Masai, Johor Baru, this year, making it probably the Chinese school with the highest ratio of non-Chinese pupils down south.

According to a report in Sin Chew Daily today, the school received 233 new pupils out of which 130 are non-Chinese.

The school has a total of 1,559 pupils at the last count, and 667 of them or 43% are non-Chinese.

SJK(C) Masai parent-teacher association president Zhang Fu Kai told the daily that this year, for the first time ever, the school saw Chinese pupils out-numbered in its new intake.

He said Malays accounted for the bulk of the 130 new pupils with 77, followed by Indians with 14, and 39 from various ethnic groups from Sabah and Sarawak.

He attributed the climb in the ratio of non-Chinese pupils in the school to a drop in the Chinese population in relation to other races and the fact that the school is located in an area populated by non-Chinese.

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What conclusions can we draw from this, if any?

Does the increasing enrolment of non-Chinese Malaysians in Chinese vernacular schools, which are part of the national education system, suggest that confidence among Malaysians in the quality of education in the regular fully funded Malay-medium national schools is ebbing? Even certain mission schools, a pale shadow of their former selves, are losing students to the Chinese vernacular schools.

Or perhaps more parents feel that there is too much ‘indoctrination’ in the fully funded national schools?

Or are more Malaysians thinking ahead of a future when China is expected to have a greater influence in this country, especially given the sale of land and property to buyers from China and the huge involvement of China firms in mega infrastructure projects here? Is it a coincidence that this particular school is in in the state of Johor, where mainland China firms are heavily involved in property development with some three quarters of the buyers coming from China. (From what I hear, students from China are also enrolling in certain local higher education institutions and universities, taking up short-term English language and other graduate courses.)

Perhaps it is a combination of all three factors?

I sent this report to a few of my friends, sparking some pointed reactions.

“You ask yourself why? The answer is obvious! Are they finally realising that they have been duped all along by Umno?” says a former finance and legal professional in KL.

A former colleague, a senior engineer-turned-industrialist, remarked, “(We are) slowly being colonised by Big Brother. It is all going ‘south’.”

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A friend in Ipoh shares this anecdote, “Some 30 years ago, when I was residing in Subang Jaya, I met three Malays at a Chinese medical shop speaking Mandarin to the owner. Intrigued and curious, I chatted with them. Said their parents had foresight, sent them to sekolah Cina to mix and learn from the Chinese. That was 30 years ago!”

Those in urban areas are able to think more independently and are not so easily influenced by Umno rhetoric, adds this friend.

Academic Azmil Tayeb, who is an Aliran executive committee member, provides more food for thought: “Nationally, there’s a higher percentage of Malay students in Chinese-type schools than Chinese students in Sekolah Kebangsaan.”

According to 2011 data in the Malaysia Education Blueprint published by the ministry, 9% of bumiputera pupils are in Chinese vernacular schools (with the remainder in national schools), he says. This figure would have risen by now.

In contrast, only 3% of Chinese Malaysian pupils and 1% of Indian Malaysian pupils are in national primary schools, Azmil points out.

For me, it is a positive development if more Malaysians of different backgrounds are coming together in education and mixing and mingling and learning one another’s languages.

But not all is rosy for the vernacular Chinese schools. Public funding of Chinese vernacular schools was less than 4% despite these schools catering to 21% of the student population in Malaysia, says Azmil.

Another academic adds that inner city depopulation has led to declining enrolments as can be seen in certain Chinese vernacular schools in inner city George Town. Indeed, total enrolment in all Chinese primary schools has dropped from 623,000 in 2000 to 525,000 in 2018, also due to the mushrooming of international and other private schools as well as couples having fewer children these days.

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If Chinese primary schools receive a new lease of life and Mandarin, the main medium in these schools, gains more prominence, would that hasten the demise of Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese?

One Chinese Malaysian in Penang, an ‘economy rice’ vendor, does not seem particularly bothered, brushing off such concerns with a hearty laugh: “It’s OK. Go where the money is!”

But the loss of linguistic diversity and cultural roots is a heavy price for some. Says my Ipoh friend: “Soon I will be lost among Mandarin-speaking Malaysians! Right now, dialects eg Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka and Cantonese are at risk of disappearing. Young generation Singaporeans don’t seem to speak Teochew and Hokkien anymore.”

Meanwhile, what can the fully funded Malay-medium national schools do to regain the confidence of many Malaysians? The solutions may seem obvious – but no matter how many education blueprints or masterplans they come up with, the BN politicians’ appetite to push through genuine and meaningful reforms appears lacking.

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