Politician’s criticism of Chinese, Tamil schools sparks debate in Malaysia

Ili Shazwani and Iskandar Zulkarnain
Kangar and Georgetown, Malaysia
Politician’s criticism of Chinese, Tamil schools sparks debate in Malaysia Indian children smile while waiting for their bus at a Tamil language primary school in Batang Berjuntai, west of Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 18, 2008.

Updated at 4:58 p.m. ET on 2023-03-06

The chief of a Malay-centric party has sparked debate in Malaysia by criticizing schools that teach children in Tamil and Mandarin, saying they fuel divisions in society.

The comments by Mukhriz Mahathir opened an unusually frank public discussion of inter-ethnic tensions in Malaysia, where Malays enjoy a range of public benefits not available to minorities.

Mukhriz – president of Pejuang, a party founded by veteran politician and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – was responding to a blog post last week by a senior ethnic-Chinese politician who lamented that non-Malay citizens were unlikely to become prime minister for generations, even though the constitution does not bar it.

Mukhriz said the country had first to eliminate factors that divide people, before that could happen.

“The existence of vernacular schools, in particular, creates a separate stream of teaching that can cause divisions between our children,” he said in a Facebook post on Monday.

“We need to allow our children to learn, play and mingle with each other until the differences between them become celebrated and not divisive. Only then can we hope to see a non-Malay as nothing other than a Malaysian, not colored by their ethnic background.”

Mukhriz said it did not matter that non-Malays identified as Malaysian first and their ethnic background second.

“It’s also about how others perceive him based on his words, actions, way of life and demeanor,” he said.

“Unlike Thai Chinese, who seamlessly blend in with other ethnic Thais, Chinese Malaysians often insist on maintaining their language, culture and way of thinking separate from the majority Malays. This only reinforces the emphasis on ethnicity and creates further divisions in society.”

Mukhriz was responding to a blog post Friday by veteran politician Lim Kit Siang, a co-founder of the Democratic Action Party, or DAP, which is a member of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. 

Lim referred to a news story in the Daily Express that quoted former PM Mahathir as saying Malays were being left behind in the country, so he would work for his race.

In this context, Lim wrote that after more than six decades of independence, leaders should be talking about the problems in Malaysia and not Malay problems or non-Malay problems.

Lim went on to say: “I do not expect to see a non-Malay become a Prime Minister in my lifetime or even my children’s lifetime.”

‘Eliminate race-based political parties’

Mukhriz’s comments did not go down well with many on social media.

Ethnic Malays comprise close to 70 percent of Malaysia’s population, with ethnic Chinese making up 22.8 percent, and ethnic Indians 6.6 percent.

“There are other factors that contribute to the division of the people, such as race and religion-based political parties that keep instigating religious and racial rhetorical sentiments. Can we get rid of those first too?” said Twitter user @rakyat_Malaysia.

“Eliminate your father’s way of thinking first, … then eliminate race-based political parties. Vernacular schools don’t discriminate [by] race, political parties do!” said @Eddie LFC 19X on Twitter.

Analysts, too, said what the Pejuang president was suggesting could inflame tensions in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country.

Jeniri Amir, adjunct professor at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, said it would be impossible and inadvisable to change something that has been integrated into the system for so many decades.

“To expect the Chinese approving the abolishment of vernacular schools is equivalent to hoping for Malays to surrender the prime minister’s post to the Chinese or Indians. There will be racial tension,” he told BenarNews.

“Realistically, it is good idealism to see the country under one mainstream for the sake of unity. However, this is a country based on a social contract with its own history.”

Another analyst, Siti Norayu Mohd Basir, senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Perlis, said having Chinese and Tamil schools was an issue of identity.

“The vernacular school issues are interconnected to unity, self-identity and enforcement of Malay language as national language. … For non-Malays such as Indian and Chinese, they are protecting their racial identity through their mother tongues’ preservation at vernacular schools,” she said.

“With no doubt, the issue of abolishing these schools would cause dissatisfaction among many, thus it is crucial to focus on finding solutions so that the vernacular schools could instill the spirit of unity while celebrating the diversity.”

For academic Awang Azman bin Awang Pawi of the University of Malaya, Mukhriz’s comment was attention-seeking and intended to please the opposition bloc Perikatan Nasional, which Pejuang wants to join.

“Mukhriz has applied to join Perikatan Nasional, which means that he has to adjust himself in terms of statements, point of views and attitude in accordance with Perikatan Nasional’s stance,” he told BenarNews.

“In this context, PN is more conservative and traditional, hence Mukhriz has no choice but to assimilate himself in order to be accepted by Perikatan Nasional. As such, this [statement by Mukhriz] is a political move to gain attention, besides showing that he is very suitable.”

Analysts noted after the November general election that Perikatan fought a race-based campaign, which featured allegedly divisive campaign speeches, to win over a large swathe of ethnic Malay votes amid a proliferation of anonymous hate videos.

Awang said no ruling party in Malaysia would ever abolish the Chinese and Tamil schools.

“If Perikatan Nasional wanted to do it, they could have done so when they were in power,” he said, referring to the bloc’s leader and former PM Muhyiddin Yassin’s tenure from March 2020 to August 2021.

 “It [such schools] has been agreed upon since Malaysia gained independence and it could disrupt the unity among the multiracial nation if the schools were abolished.”


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