Tumult at vernacular schools

By Himanshu Bhatt, The Sun

THERE was some disquiet among vernacular Chinese and Tamil schools late last year when a report surfaced of two Chinese schools in Muar receiving notices from the Education Department that they would have non-bilingual Malay language teachers in 2011.

The news stirred a contentious issue. For vernacular institutions and their proponents have insisted that Malay language teachers for Year 1 and Year 2 classes be versed in both Malay and either Mandarin or Tamil, whichever applied. Furthermore, Education Minister Tan Sri Muyhiddin Yassin had himself given an assurance that the government would provide bilingual teachers for Malay language in the first two years of the students’ school education.

Just as this little storm was brewing, in Penang, the state’s Chinese education affairs coordinating committee chair, Chong Eng, reported having received complaints from boards of directors of Chinese schools.

They had apparently said the state education department had verbally informed that if it did not receive official instructions from the ministry, it would not necessarily send bilingual Malay language teachers to the schools.

The issue abated when the ministry sent out a circular, which was dated Dec 9, 2010, to all state education departments, stipulating that Malay language teachers for Standard 1 and 2 must not only be bilingual but also have an SPM credit in Malay.

But there was something else in the circular. There was another condition that stipulated a new requirement, and which flew past the attention of most people.

What the circular also said was that teachers of Malay language for Year 3 to Year 6 classes must now only be those who have completed “Pengajian Melayu” (Malay Studies) as a professional option in their tertiary studies. What this effectively means is that teachers who have not undertaken “Pengajian Melayu” cannot teach Malay language to students from Year 3 to 6.

Schools categorised under “Sekolah kurang murid” (under-enrolled schools) are exempted.

What exactly is “Pengajian Melayu”? It is an entire programme option, with degree qualification provided at its end. And the thrust of its syllabus covers a comprehensive gamut of Malay civilisation studies, including culture, history, ethnography, sociology, literature and linguistics, among other things.

Understandably enough, this is a specialised field. And what makes the new requirement questionable is why teachers of Malay language from Year 3 to 6 are now restricted to only those who complete such a programme. What would happen to teachers who have already been teaching Malay language in vernacular schools but have not done “Pengajian Melayu”?

The new stipulation also raises genuine concerns about the impact it would have on Chinese and Tamil schools. Prof Dr P. Ramasamy, Penang’s deputy chief minister (II), was blunt in his comments about the requirement: “This is a sinister attempt to interfere further in the affairs of vernacular schools.”

Ramasamy is no novice when it comes to education. He was a professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia for more than 25 years, and understands very well what the “Pengajian Melayu” issue is all about.

The “Pengajian Melayu” departments at our varsities are some of the most “problematic” in terms of popularity today. Those who graduate with a degree in Malay Studies have limited options for employment in the general job market unlike graduates from other faculties.

So is this new requirement that the teachers of Malay language must be those who have completed “Pengajian Melayu” a tactic to make the programme more relevant by ensuring job positions for those who graduate with it?

Interestingly enough, the matter was never discussed in Parliament, and the decision made by the cabinet itself on Nov 26.

Now not only will the Education Ministry need to address this matter, but it will surely have to provide a justifiable reason for imposing such a stringent and highly restrictive criteria in the public teaching sector.

Even more urgently, it will need to respond to obvious anxieties that the directive has begun to generate, on the implications it would bear for the Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools.