schools, sacrificial lambs of a political agenda
Tamil education has its merits By Sharon Nelson
Moving forward together with MIC By: Denison Jayasooria
Is abolishing Tamil schools the solution? (M Nadarajah)
Closing Tamil schools may lead to a loss of identity
Recently, he and his wife heard a radio broadcast advertising nominally-
priced extra lessons given by the Sri Murugan Centre (SMC), an education-
From now on, his 15-year-old daughter will spend her weekends at the centre, doing whatever it takes to inch her way to her father's vision.
Meanwhile Ravindran, who tends the garden in a Petaling Jaya school,
has an after-hours job as a karate instructor. The extra money is set
"I will try my best for her in whatever way I can. I will see people to ask for a scholarship," he says.
How sound a plan this is remains to be seen. There is no shortage of anecdotes about how hard it is - particularly for the poorest members of the community - to get any kind of study aid.
In his own family, a relative scored 7As in her SPM last year but failed to get financial assistance.
There is also one more bridge Ravindran's daughter must cross and cross with confidence. Having come from a Tamil primary school, she must beat the odds and excel in her national secondary school if she harbours any hope of getting a scholarship.
Like many children with a vernacular primary education, she must now lead her academic life completely in Bahasa Malaysia.
And unlike Chinese schools, the average Tamil school is too short on morale and resources to produce confident, well-grounded students who will not flounder upon entry into national schools.
Picking up the shortfall are organisations like the SMC and the Education,
Welfare and Research Foundation (EWRF) which conduct classes
One project conducted by the Taman Tun Dr Ismail branch of EWRF takes place at a Tamil school in Semenyih, about 40 minutes from Kuala Lumpur.
Those who come for the extra classes on Sundays are largely children of plantation workers, many of whom do not even enjoy running water in their homes.
Like Ravindran, they are full of dreams.
"I want to be a lawyer," says one nine-year-old girl. Others echo her, interchanging the ambition with "doctor", "engineer" and "teacher".
Yet, among this group aged seven to 12, are those who cannot write or even draw, who falter with their ABCs and who, in their UPSR year, cannot speak or understand Bahasa Malaysia.
This is the dismal public face of Tamil education, highlighted time and again in news reports, academic papers and political addresses.
To many, Tamil schools are notoriously backward, poorly-funded, badly- managed and lacking in even basic facilities. Those who favour closing them down claim they contribute little, if at all, to the development of the community.
Some go even further, blaming them for the social problems riddling the Indian community.
"But the consequences of closing them down will be far greater," says lawyer Sathish Ramachandran, who is also a volunteer with EWRF.
"You shut down Tamil schools you will see the lower-income Indian being totally displaced."
Sathish is one of a growing number of individuals who are concerned that closing Tamil schools will lead to a loss of culture, identity and direction.
"Tamil schools are always situated near a temple. This is because their lives centre around school and temple, community and education.
"Take that away and these kids will have to go to Government schools. There is no real difference in cost, but they will lose touch with their identity.
"They won't do things like sing the devaram (Hindu devotional) in the morning, they won't be observing all the Indian festivals."
This loss of identity will be felt most keenly in the political realm.
"The Barisan Nasional traditional supporter is the Indian, the lower- income Indian, and a lot of MIC members are Tamil school headmasters.
"If you abolish the schools, it's detrimental to the MIC and to the Indian community, because Indian political representation gets watered down."
Like many in the community, his views are born of pragmatism rather than partisanship.
"When Lunas State Assemblyman Joe Fernandez died, to be honest, the main reason I was upset was that we (the community) lost one seat."
Another proponent of the Tamil school system is Kumar Menon, Senior Director (Special Projects) of Stamford College Bhd.
"Tamil schools are the last vestige of Indians in this country. If you remove that from the landscape, there isn't any other visible presence."
Preserving the language, he says, is vital for political resonance.
Though full integration is the preferred goal in Malaysia, "in the interim for the Indians, language is the manifestation of continuing identity in this country".
"Once it's taken away, there is very little left."
There is also an additional political point.
"Political, economic and social programmes are divided along ethnic lines. In order to have any kind of place, we must maintain the individual strengths of the community.
"What else is there to argue that we are in this country as an Indian community? Language is the glue."
Indeed this was the case with Chinese education. Though several different dialects are spoken by the community, there is only one standard script.
But how effective would this be within the local Indian community where there are numerous written, spoken and published languages?
"We really need to understand that our progress here is dependent on the strength of the ethnic group. If you don't have an ethnic group to argue your case, you have nothing."
Menon, whose own mother tongue is Malayalam, believes that the Tamil language can be a unifying tool to create a successful political identity.
"The Tamil language is important and other lingual factions in the Indian community should suspend disagreement over Tamil schools, support their development and perhaps incorporate other Indian languages into the system."
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