Teaching in the Vernacular

Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools are essential parts of the vibrant fabric that is the Malaysian education system.

Teachers and school heads are appointed by the Education Ministry, and to some extent, these schools receive periodic grants to help with the running of a school. All other expenses fall on the schools themselves and boards of governors are appointed to aid and oversee their management.

While mission schools largely sit on land owned by their respective Christian orders and churches or hold long land leases, one-third of Chinese and Tamil schools actually sit on government land and the remainder are on plots owned by the schools, trustees, clan associations, temples or private individuals.

For the Tamils, only primary schools exist in the country, while there are three different types of Chinese schools: primary schools or SJKCs; secondary schools known as “conforming schools” or SMJKs; and independent, private Chinese secondary schools.

Vernacular primary schools use Tamil or Chinese as the language of instruction, while SMJKs have converted to Bahasa Melayu in the teaching of all non-language subjects since 1976 – a condition needed if they are to receive funding from the government, under the Education Act 1961. All these schools use the national curriculum.

Independent Chinese high schools teach in Chinese with six years of learning. These private secondary schools are not government-aided and run a completely different academic curriculum. Students here sit for the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), although at least half of the 61 independent Chinese secondary schools in the country also prepare their charges to take SPM subjects.

A Significant Presence

Educating over one-fifth of the nation’s primary school children, SJKCs represent a huge part of education in Malaysia.

In Penang, with its sizeable Chinese population, the number of pupils attending Chinese primary schools this year is 45,485 – just under 35% of the overall primary student population in the state.

“More than 95% of Chinese primary school students attend SJKCs. Unofficially, less than 5% opt for national schools while international schools have become increasingly popular among parents who can afford the fees,” says United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong) vice-chairman Kho Hai Meng.

Located in Sungai Tiram, SMJK Heng Ee Cawangan was built with 96 classrooms to accommodate its future student body.

Kho, 78, is also the Penang and Province Wellesley United Chinese School Management Association chairman and has been involved in the management and in the affairs of Chinese schools for nearly five decades. He says the number of Chinese students entering SJKCs has in general steadily decreased for years now – likely a reflection of the drop in the birth rate of the Chinese community.

“The 1990s saw the peak of enrolment in Chinese primary schools and some 20 years back, Penang had about 60,000 primary school students studying in SJKCs. Nowadays, Chinese parents are content with having one or two children, but back in my time, having five or six was normal. Nevertheless, the enrolment of non-Chinese students into our SJKCs has increased every year. It is at 18% now, while about 10 years ago, it was at about 13% to 14%,” says Kho.

Kho Hai Meng.

“We have never met a problem that we could not survive. I think this is the spirit of the Chinese educationalists. The standard of our private secondary schools is regarded to be comparable with those in China itself."

Penang has a total of 90 Chinese primary schools – 51 on the island and 39 on the mainland. The state also has 12 conforming secondary schools, two of which just opened their doors last year – SMJK Jit Sin II in Seberang Prai South and SMJK Heng Ee Cawangan in Sungai Tiram.

“Although the curriculum used is the same as that used in national secondary schools, the difference is the culture of the school: there are more Chinese-type activities in their co-curricular selection, and sports and cultural events. In conforming schools, there is more chance for students to use the Chinese language and there are more periods allocated to teaching Chinese as a language subject as compared to national schools,” Kho says.

Trials and Challenges

As with all government-aided schools, defined under the Education Act 1996 as institutions “in receipt of capital grant and full grantin-aid”, funding is always a challenge. “The government subsidies we receive cannot cover the administration fees so the boards have to come in and top up (the finances). This problem is most acute when schools try to expand or build new buildings. Normally, millions have to be raised, so they need to run functions like fundraising dinners,” Kho says.

According to press reports, SMJK Jit Sin II cost approximately RM30mil to build while SMJK Heng Ee Cawangan’s impressive 96 classrooms cost RM50mil.

SMJK Heng Ee Cawangan in Sungai Tiram is one of two Chinese schools that opened their doors last year.

Shortage of teachers is another big problem in Chinese schools, particularly in the primary schools. “A Chinese language teacher is different from a Chinese school teacher. A Chinese school teacher must be able to teach various subjects, not just Chinese. We have maths, science, art, even singing! Chinese is just one subject,” Kho stresses.

He says the shortage of teachers in Chinese schools has been a persistent problem for over 40 years now and although the situation has improved in recent years, it has never been fully resolved. “Last time, the shortage was a few thousand but now, it is about 300 to 400. Primary school students are registered years before they enter school, so the Education Department knows how many are on the way. The department also has the records of how many teachers there are and how many will be retiring; they know exactly how many positions they need to fill,” Kho says.

As a general rule, teachers sent to teach in SJKCs must hold at least an SPM credit in Chinese. The shortage of qualified instructors has forced schools to look to temporary teachers to fill the many vacancies.

“When there is a shortage, there will be a lot of complaints and the school boards and parent-teacher associations (PTAs) will try their best to make sure there are enough teachers at the schools. These temporary teachers are, in fact, the responsibility of the Education Department but sometimes, school boards and PTAs are left with the bill,” Kho says.

Though the journey has been far from smooth, Chinese schools continue to stand strong and are an immense source of pride for many in the Chinese community.

This is especially evident in Penang, where it is widely believed that formal Chinese education in the country began. “Chinese education started in Penang about 200 years ago. So, Chinese education in Penang is well developed and well established,” Kho says,  with a special mention to Chung Ling High School, a renowned institution that has produced several notable community and national leaders.

“Although a number of our SJKCs are considered sekolah kurang murid (SKM or “under-enrolled schools” with less than 150 students) shutting down is not one of the options considered,” Kho says. He states that 25 SJKCs out of the state’s 90 fall under the SKM category. Two schools – one in Kuala Muda and another in Sungai Pinang – have less than 30 students.

Kho explains that most under-enrolled Chinese schools are located far from towns where the exodus of residents, mostly from the younger generation, had resulted in large drops in enrolment.

Kho says relocation of schools was one solution but it faces obstacles like finding alternative land, obtaining approval from the school board and parents, as well as safeguarding the needs of the community at the original school location.

No SMJKs fall under SKM as the small number of these Chinese high schools and their 23,000-odd places mean that quite a number of hopeful students are turned away every year.

Despite all the challenges, Kho remains both confident and hopeful that things will continue to improve for Chinese schools in Malaysia. “We have never met a problem that we could not survive. I think this is the spirit of the Chinese educationalists. The standard of our private secondary schools is regarded to be comparable with those in China itself. With UEC qualifications, our students can be admitted directly into the first year of universities in China and many other countries. Malaysia is also the only country in the world where students don’t need to take an extra Chinese language proficiency exam (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi or HSK) in China if they have a UEC qualification,” he adds.

(The UEC is accepted in hundreds of higher learning institutions located in the US, Australia, France, the UK, Japan, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Germany and Russia, to list but a few countries.)

Learning in Tamil may give a strong foundation for children who speak the language at home.

Teaching in Tamil

Historically, Tamil schools are inextricably linked with Chinese education. Both fall under the “vernacular school” and “government-aided school” categories; however, they face significantly different challenges in the country today.

Deputy Chairman of the Penang Tamil Schools Committee Datuk Dr K. Anbalakan says falling enrolment is chief among the obstacles Tamil vernacular schools face. “We see that nationwide, overall enrolment is not encouraging. Back in the day, Tamil schools were mainly dependent on the labouring classes and those who sent their children to the schools were usually from the estates. However, since the 1960s, most of the estates have been fragmented, so the Indians living there were moved out to other places,” he says.

“The number of Indians living in estates decreased and naturally, the number of students studying in Tamil schools also decreased. Enrolment dropped and that is the reason most of the schools had to close down,” he adds.

The change in demographics saw the number of Tamil schools fall drastically – from over 1,000 before the country’s independence to 525 today.

This number, Anbalakan explains, was 523 for the longest time, until SJK(T) Jalan Paya Besar opened in Lunas, Kedah in 2016 – the first new Tamil school to be built in the country in over half a century. “From Independence until then, no new Tamil schools were built. It was followed by another school in Sentosa, Selangor – SJK(T) Taman Sentosa – that just opened in April,” he says.

Datuk Dr K. Anbalakan.

"If you teach in the mother tongue, children can comprehend easily, especially those who are younger. Let them learn the fundamentals – the basics – in Tamil so their foundation will be very strong."

Currently, Penang is home to 28 Tamil schools – seven on the island and 21 on the mainland. All are primary schools. There is in fact not a single Tamil secondary school in the nation.

“We hear that there used to be one a long, long time ago in KL, but even now, we don’t have a clear picture of what kind of school it was. Today, there are groups of people here and there talking about Tamil secondary schools because there are Chinese secondary schools and other sorts of secondary schools, such as international schools that operate in English. However, it remains a contentious issue, even among Indians,” Anbalakan says.

He adds that after a new state administration took office in 2008, there had been a move to set up such a school. News reports state that then-chief minister Lim Guan Eng had even offered a parcel of land in Butterworth for a Tamil secondary school in However, an Education Ministry permit was not forthcoming on the grounds that there were no provisions under the Education Act 1996 for Tamil secondary schools to be built.

SJK (T) Sungai Ara is one of 525 Tamil schools in the country.

Concerning students in Tamil vernacular primary schools in the state, Anbalakan says the number is somewhere between 6,000 to 7,000. “Nationwide, we have about 100,000 to 110,000 students. In Penang, enrolment is more or less stagnant with a difference of about 10 to 20 students from 2009 onwards,” he says.

Since the number of primary school students in the country hovers at over 2.6 million, those attending Tamil schools stand at a mere 4% – a poor reflection of the population of the Indian community in the country which accounts for approximately 7%.

Anbalakan says another reason for this low enrolment is the lack of confidence the Indian community has of the language itself. “Tamils are quite passionate about their language but there is always doubt, especially among the middle and upper classes, whether one can go far on Tamil alone. So, they start sending their kids to national schools,” Anbalakan says.

He expounds that in actual fact, learning in Tamil may give a strong foundation for children who speak the language at home. “If you teach in the mother tongue, children can comprehend easily, especially those who are younger,” he says.

“In the end, language is only a medium. Let them learn the fundamentals – the basics – in Tamil so their foundation will be very strong. Once they go over to secondary school, they would have already been exposed to both Malay and English in primary school,” Anbalakan adds.

Penang has a total of 90 Chinese primary schools – 51 on the island and 39 on the mainland.

Moving Forward

Anbalakan says unlike Chinese schools, there remains a lack of consensus among the Indian community on the direction Tamil schools should take.

An example of this is the non-existence of a national body that overseas and speaks for Tamil schools. “We have no national body, but we have so many smaller organisations, which sometimes makes things more difficult! When we face issues like DLP (the Dual Language Programme which allows maths and science to be studied in either Malay or English), we don’t have a unified stance and we see a lot of quarrelling and fighting among all these smaller groups,” he says.

He adds that there are even Indian far-left and far-right groups – the former advocates the abolishment of Tamil schools, and the latter believes that smaller Indian ethnic groups like the Malayalis and Telugus are determined to demolish the use of the Tamil language.

“In essence, the Indian community itself is fragmented and divided on so many levels – place of origin, class, language, religion – and this has not been to our benefit. In all honesty, Tamil schools are here today because of the Chinese schools. From 1951 when the Barnes Report came about, the Chinese fought hard to maintain their schools.

“You see, for the Chinese, education is primary. No matter how remote the place, wherever you find a Chinese community, you will see a school there. For Indians, temples are the primary concern so when our schools started closing down, there was not so much concern shown. Without Chinese schools, I think Tamil schools would have been wiped out today,” Anbalakan says.

The tide, he expounds, is slowly changing and Tamil schools are looking at a brighter future. In Penang, all 28 Tamil schools now have boards of governors to safeguard and oversee the management of the institutions.

One of the reasons for the poor performance of Tamil school students in UPSR was because they didn’t have a strong foundation before coming into schools. Many of them had no access to public preschool education and a lot could not afford to pay for private kindergarten."

And since 2008, all these primary schools now run kindergartens – an essential feature to ensure strong enrolment into primary schools and a better academic performance among young Tamil school students. “One of the reasons for the poor performance of Tamil school students in UPSR was because they didn’t have a strong foundation before coming into schools. Many of them had no access to public preschool education and a lot could not afford to pay for private kindergarten. So, Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy appointed a special committee on Penang Tamil Schools and we encouraged all Parent-Teacher Associations in Tamil schools to set up kindergartens,” Anbalakan says, adding that before 2008, only some 10 to 15 such kindergartens were operating.

Funding is a primary concern in the running of these preschools, so the state takes it upon itself to pay for teachers and kindergarten assistants. “About 30% of Tamil schools in the country are fully government schools where the land and buildings belong to the federal government. In Penang, we have at least five of these schools and the federal government runs the kindergartens in them. For the government-aided schools, the state supports teachers and assistants with a monthly allowance of RM500 and RM400 respectively which comes up to about RM20,000 per month overall,” Anbalakan says. The state also allocates RM100,000 a year for the upkeep of the kindergartens, which is separate from the RM1.75mil given to the 28 Tamil schools annually since 2009.

Serious efforts are also ongoing to modernise Tamil schools with features like touch-screen boards in classrooms and up-to-date computer labs. “With all these changes,” says Anbalakan, “people from the middle and upper middle classes are starting to send their children to Tamil schools. I feel that the awareness is coming among Indians on the importance of maintaining Tamil schools as a community identity marker.”

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