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Is Malaysian Schooling Truly Racially Integrated? (no it isn't)

by Shakeel, edited by Jerome

Schooling in Malaysia is a crowded market. Beyond national school, there are a multitude of options such as government national schools (which are separated by race to form vernacular schools), religious schools and international or private schooling. Despite this diversity in the types of schools it ironically leads to homogeneity within these schools.

Example of an international school, image via St Joseph’s Institution

Whether it be through social class, race or religion, students in most schools tend to be of the same. Islamic schools ultimately lead to environments where the study body is (mostly) Malay Muslims and lack any diversity. The same is the case in vernacular Chinese schools but instead, students speak Mandarin and hold mostly Buddhist or Christian beliefs. Private and International schools on the other hand consist of students of a similar social class with the tuition fee alone being a barrier to entry.

The result is a lack of exposure to other ‘groups’ at a critical period in their lives. It creates echo chambers that can the breeding of racist stereotypes due to a lack of exposure to any counter-narrative This article aims to highlight the importance of this exposure and to analyse the factors leading to its rarity.

The Psychology Behind Racial Behaviours in Children

It is human nature to view things from an ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ mentality. Be it on the grounds of race, belief or status, it is a mental shortcut many of us instinctually make. When children are only exposed to those with the same skin colour, it is natural to make other races seem alien. This mentality usually extends to adulthood and influences their views where the problem perpetuates. One theory states that early contact plays a role.

Image via

The intergroup contact theory by Allport states that under appropriate conditions, intergroup contact is an effective way to reduce prejudice between groups.

Said conditions are (1) equal status within the group, 2) intergroup cooperation, 3) common goals amongst the group and 4) support by social and institutional authorities. Ingroups tend to develop more positive perceptions and fewer negative perceptions of that outgroup. In a school environment, all four goals are theoretically met.

How effective are national schools in this regard?

Students in a National School, image via

National schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan and Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan) seemingly solve this problem providing a space for students from all walks of life to mingle. In practice, students in national schools are dependent on the demographic of the surrounding residential area. Due to the racial makeup of Malaysia, Malays are usually the overwhelming majority in National schools especially in rural areas. Urban areas have a higher percentage of Chinese and Indian students. Moreover, Chinese and Indians have the option of going for vernacular schools whereas those of a higher social class have the option to go for private or international school. The availability of choice leads to the defaulting of students to their most proximal ethnic and religious identities. This leads to the streaming of students into their homogenous groups.

Also important is that intergroup contact in national schools is uncertain. Based on a 2014 study by the British Psychological Society on a diverse school in Britain, white and Asian students often sit among themselves in a cafeteria setting. When the students were asked why they chose to sit amongst their own race exclusively , students attributed this behaviour to fear of rejection and perceived lack of interest from the other group.

This fear was only real in perception but in reality, both groups had a heavy interest to connect with each other. The study found that reducing the fear of rejection is possible when students believe that their close friends within their ingroups had experience interacting with the outgroup. Applied to a Malaysian context, additional efforts from the school administration to incentivise contact can prove beneficial. In a group project example, diversifying group members may spark a larger change in the perception of their friends.

The Formation of Vernacular Schooling

The issues that spawn from a division of public education is not a new topic. To ameliorate national unity ‘Sekolah Wawasan’ was previously created as a type of institution that combined the three types of vernacular schools — under one compound. This entailed the sharing of school facilities whilst maintaining different school administrations.

Example of a Sekolah Wawasan. Image via Utusan Malaysia.

Among other reasons, this was met with objection from the minority communities who feared the erasure and restriction of the use of their mother tongue.

From a psychological standpoint, this system too would conflict with Allport’s conditions of intergroup cooperation and common goals. The schools merely shared a compound and facilities but were still treating students differently with certain classes being completely separate.

Today still, vernacular schools are more common than Wawasan schools and are as hotly debated as ever. Vernacular schools have recently come under fire when several NGOs including GPMS, Mappim and Gapena even went as far as initiating a legal battle to prohibit vernacular schools. These NGOs claimed that vernacular schools are unconstitutional, violating Article 152(1) declaring the Malay language as the national language. They also claimed violations of several other articles ranging from the right to a dignified life to freedom in religion.

However, this lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali who stated, “A true and proper interpretation of these provisions in Article 152 (1) does not prevent the establishment and maintenance of vernacular schools”. At present, vernacular schools are constitutionally protected.

Protesters holding a banner that translates to ‘Abolish Chinese Schools’. Image via Malaysiakini.

Where does that leave us?

In a perfect world, a single education system where everyone coexists would of course be preferable. In reality, shifting the landscape of schools now would be akin to changing the course of a large ship. The reluctance by minority communities to abandon vernacular schooling systems is often blamed on an overall sentiment that the government does not share minority views of what it means to be Malaysian. To have to conform to a single language, culture and customs would be to admit that their own is not sufficiently Malaysian enough.

In an evermore diverse Malaysia, the identity of what it means to be Malaysian will ultimately evolve with the times. However, recognising how our biases are shaped by our upbringing is a step in the right direction to national harmony.

To quote Zairil Johari, ‘As long as our schools encourage respect and appreciation of each other’s heritage and celebrate cultural diversity as a source of strength, then there is no question that our children will grow up to be decent and inclusive Malaysians.’

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