KUCHING: Despite the challenges in its earlier days pertaining to funding and recognition, Chinese education remains more relevant than ever.
Starting its roots from the advent of Chinese associations during the Brooke’s era to promote mother tongue education and culture of the community, it has made leaps and bounds ever since.
Kuching Chung Hua Middle School (CHMS) No.1, 3 and 4 Board of Management Committee chairman Datuk Richard Wee said for the future, more recognition is needed for the education system which serves not only the Chinese but also the bumiputeras.
He also said the state government’s support for Chinese education is exemplary and should be a model for the federal government and other states on nurturing the potential of its students.
Below is the text of his exclusive interview with New Sarawak Tribune.
NST: Briefly, what is the history of Chinese education in Sarawak?
Wee: If you look at a snapshot of the history, Chinese school started during the Rajah’s time, after the Chinese settled down, their associations started building their own schools.
That is why you see schools now belong to numerous Chinese associations. This is what they started and did to propagate mother tongue education as well as the Chinese culture.
When the British came in 1960s, they said if the government were to aid the schools, they would have to follow the national education policy and at the time, they were talking about changing the mother tongue to English.
That was the time the Chinese schools said it couldn’t be individually managed as it would be taxing and they decided to combine under one common board represented by different associations.
Why are there different types of Chinese schools?
The Malaysian education system is unique as we have many different types of schools. For Chinese education, the primary schools are government aided but if you go to the secondary schools, they are independent.
How many of these schools are available in Malaysia and in Sarawak?
Throughout the country, there are 60 independent schools, of which fourteen are in Sarawak. Their syllabus is until Form 6, and they follow the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) that is why UEC has become a hot potato for the Education ministry.
In Sarawak, we have fourteen independent Chinese schools, these schools have a school board where national schools a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).
Why is there a controversy surrounding the UEC recognition?
UEC has been a thorn in the Chinese community since it started in 1976 and is equivalent to STPM (Malaysian Higher School Certificate).
It involves six years of education similar to the American education system where we have Junior years one, two and three, and senior years, one, two and three.
UEC has existed in more than 40 countries in the world and close to 2,000 universities recognise the certificate including in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Whereas when it comes to Malaysian universities, they don’t recognise it due to the education policy. I would say it is political, but they might argue differently, but I would think that it is politically driven.
Having said that we are faced with two things — number one is recognition of the certificate and number two is financial as the secondary schools are independent meaning we have to raise our own funds.
Being independent schools, it became a major financial burden for the 60 schools throughout the country.
How has the state government assisted these schools?
We have been trying our best at the national level. Fortunately in Sarawak, ever since the late Pehin Sri Adenan Satem took over as Chief Minister and after we showed our standards, he kindly agreed to give an annual grant starting from RM3 million in 2014.
He also promised to look into UEC recognition. In 2015 he made the bold decision to recognise UEC and the students were able to join the state’s civil service.
On the financial side, the assistance has gradually increased by RM1 million every year. With Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg following Adenan’s footsteps, in 2021, he has given us a grant of RM10 million.
Financially, we are grateful and I think with the annual grant, it has stabilised the school’s financial woes. As far as UEC is concerned, after the recognition, we tried to get the graduates to consider joining the civil service.
How has that worked out?
Unfortunately, this kind of thing may need some time to sink in as in the last 50 years, UEC was never recognised and a lot of the students never considered civil service as their career path of choice.
Last year we started planning roadshows to all the schools, Chinese associations and parents to talk about the civil service scheme. We started with the first forum and we had a good response. We wanted to roll it out in Sibu, Bintulu and Miri.
From the figures, there are only a few who have joined the civil service through UEC but there are also those UEC graduates who had joined the civil service previously using Malaysian Examinations Certificate (SPM).
At our schools we also encourage the students to take the SPM exams for their future as they will be able to come back to serve the government if they go overseas.
We are proud to say that we are the only school that has the system where when you graduate, you will not only have UEC but SPM as well.
The RM10 million in annual assistance; is it enough?
We did a calculation before the assistance was given, for the fourteen schools, every year their total deficit is about RM20 to RM25 million combined.
So every school will bear their own deficit through fundraising from year to year. Now with the state assisting half of it, it is a major relief.
We also try to not depend on any one individual, we try to make the fund-raising community driven such as through food fairs like the one done by the Chung Hua Middle School No 1.
When they hold a food fair, they would rake in about RM500,000 because they have close to 2,000 students, then you also have Chinese associations coming in to set up stalls.
What is the advantage of Chinese education to the national education?
There are a couple of elements, for those parents or students who put importance into the mother tongue education, you don’t have to convince them, they will automatically go to the school.
There are also parents who feel Mandarin is important as if you go to our school, we emphasise Mandarin as the medium of teaching. English is also emphasised and because we are encouraging them to take SPM, Bahasa Melayu is also being considered as one of the major subjects.
If you go to our schools, I won’t say you would be trilingual, but you will be exposed to three languages. Whereas if you go to the national schools, primarily it will be Bahasa Melayu.
So I would say there is certainly an advantage if you sit down and analyse the syllabus that we have but apart from the syllabus and the stream of exams, there is a general impression that Mathematics and Science are strong at Chinese schools.
Why is this so?
I can’t put my finger on it and pinpoint a specific reason, but traditionally we have been emphasising importance in Science and Mathematics and all these years, the schools aim to better themselves.
There is a continuous self-improvement from the schools to improve results from one year to the next which improves its standard of Mathematics and Science, the other thing that is important is the culture and discipline of the school, which is its soul.
To me if you are a straight A student, but if your attitude is arrogant, I would rather you don’t be a straight A student.
The focus of Chinese school is on character building and I believe you have to try to build the character first before the result.
How is this embedded in the curriculum?
I think the culture might not be embedded in the curriculum but it is the culture of the school. Try to go to any of the Chinese schools, the students would bow and greet you. That is the culture that they have.
When I go to other schools they just walk past you and do not acknowledge you at all. I think that speaks volumes for the students being brought up.
It is important that apart from being result driven, the characters of students being churned out of the schools and their attributes and characteristics when they go into the society are essential.
Where do you see Chinese education going into the future?
I think it is here to stay. It has gone through the most difficult time, if anything we look forward to more recognition, ultimately the country to recognise UEC. We feel that UEC is a home-grown syllabus, recognised by other countries except our own.
It is a bit sad, but moving forward, my only worry is that if the government do not change its policy or attitude towards these students, we will lose them.
This is happening now and we are trying to correct it. They are now seeking opportunities in other countries such as Australia, Singapore and China and they won’t come back.
In terms of Sarawak government, what is the level of support?
It has been fantastic, I think now as far as the Chinese education is concerned, the state government support towards it is the envy of the whole country.
I think a lot of my school board members, who are on the other side (Malaya), they say how they wish that they have a government like ours.
I keep telling my Chinese community, what is important for the Chinese – what does the Chinese want?
The Chinese just want to have a reasonable place to make a living and to do business. Secondly, they consider education as very important. If their children get accepted to the university, they would borrow money to send them there. That is the length they would go to for their children to have the best education.
Has the state government attended to all these?
Apart from the RM10 million grant that is given to the Chinese Independent schools, the Chief Minister has also set up a unit to take care of all Chinese schools under Local Government and Housing Minister Datuk Seri Dr Sim Kui Hian.
They have allocated RM8 million for the unit and we will see how we can build it up and work on its role.
In a nutshell, is Chinese education better than the national education?
If you ask me, I would say yes but I might be biased, but we will let the facts and figures speak for themselves, now we can see more students coming to the Chinese schools.
The reality of things is that in this world when China become stronger, the people when they want to do business with China and with Chinese education, it will have its advantages.
Lastly, what kind of reform would you want to see for the Chinese independent schools?
Currently, the students are given additional burden and pressure in terms of studying, because you have one syllabus for UEC and every Saturday, they have additional classes to make sure they are able to keep up with SPM, my reform is that I want the syllabus to merge.
We have to do it ourselves and not wait for others. We merge it in such a way that when you study in the normal class, you can take two exams so that you can lessen the number of hours.
What I am trying to tell is that if in Mandarin, our standard is better, we’ll stick to Mandarin and you just add in the elements SPM requires you to study.
At the same time, if Bahasa Melayu is the higher standard, you take the SPM standard and incorporate it into the normal class. If you are able to merge the syllabus together, it would lessen the burden for the students.
That is the kind of internal reform we are looking at. Regardless, I must say we are thankful to the government, we are happy that they have taken a bold decision to recognise UEC and it is our duty to reciprocate by convincing the students to join the state’s civil service.