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Chinese Education in Malaysia

Summary and Keywords

Despite the fact that Mandarin is not accorded official language status in Malaysia, and that ethnic Chinese communities accounted for less than 30% of the country’s overall population, Malaysia is the only country outside China and Taiwan with a comprehensive and complete Chinese education system. It is also the only country in Southeast Asia that has perpetuated the Chinese education system established during the colonial era.

The prolonged endurance of the Chinese education system in Malaysia is the result of many factors: heavy brokerage and lobbying efforts by ethnic Chinese political leaders; incorporation of vernacular schools into the Malay-dominated national education system in the backdrop of the Malayan nation formation stage; social mobilization of the Chinese education movement in Malaysia; and the increasing significance of Mandarin proficiency in the world.

In particular, the assimilation policies for nation building by the Malay-dominated regime have threatened the cultural distinctiveness of the Chinese-speaking communities. Resistance from the Chinese speaking minorities is manifested through their support of the Chinese schools. Moreover, the elimination of English schools during the 1970s has unintentionally favored the Chinese primary schools. Despite their standing at that time as the “second-best” option after the English school, Chinese schools that offered the benefit of trilingual education, stricter discipline, and more competitive academic performance enjoyed an accelerated boost in student enrollments. More importantly, many parents who do not speak Chinese began to appreciate the quality of Chinese schools, and the enrollment of non-ethnic Chinese students has continued to rise ever since.

Above all, China’s rapid economic ascendancy and growing political influence since the 1990s has enhanced the importance of Mandarin as a global language. This has added value to the importance of Chinese schools as language and cultural learning institutions for Malaysian. Such opportunity has enabled the Chinese school model to become one of the most successful and inclusive educational institutions for multicultural Malaysians.

Keywords: Malaysia, Chinese schools, Mandarin, social movements, minority education


As of 2017, outside China and Taiwan, only Malaysia has a comprehensive Chinese education system. It is also the only country in Southeast Asia that has perpetuated the Chinese education system established during the colonial era. Although Mandarin is not the official language in Malaysia, the coexistence of Chinese schools with the national education system reflects the complexity and diversity of Malaysia’s multicultural and multilingual society.

Chinese schools and the identity they symbolize, are a significant cultural resource for the Chinese-speaking minority in Malaysia, preserving its cultural distinctiveness in the face of continuous attempts by state authorities to dilute the minority’s identity. Often, the volume of threats from the regime is positively related to the collective support received by the Chinese schools from the grievances community.1 Despite marginalized policies, skewed resource distribution, and assimilative policies over time, Chinese education is able to sustain its operation and endure a host of challenges through strategic mobilization and collective support by the Chinese community within the country.

The Malaysian national education system consists of “two types of primary schools: national and national-type. The medium of instruction in national schools is the Malay language. National-type schools use Chinese or Tamil as the medium of instruction; however, Malay language is a compulsory subject. English is taught as a second language in all schools.”2 As of December 2016, there were 1,298 Chinese national-type primary schools (华文国民型小学‎) and 79 Chinese national-type secondary schools (华文国民型中学‎). Like the other national schools, these national-type schools have been incorporated into the national education system and adopted the national education syllabus, and their students are allowed to sit for common public examinations. The remaining 63 independent Chinese secondary schools (华文独立中学‎) continued their autonomous existence as Mandarin medium secondary schools, running through an independent curriculum and examination system.3

To develop a better understanding of the institutions, opportunities, and challenges faced by Chinese education in Malaysia, this article brings a social movement perspective to illuminate the historical and cultural experiences of the struggles of the Chinese education. The article begins with the development and dynamics of the Chinese education in the British Malaya and their associations with the political transition in Mainland China. It then elaborates the challenges faced by these schools during the Malaya independent movement in the 1950s, and during the nation-building process in the 1970s. Linked closely to political opportunities in Malaysia as well as to the growing importance of Mandarin in the 1990s, the article ends with motivation and possibilities for the Chinese education system in Malaysia today, and their potentials for the near future.

From Mainland China to the Malaya

Weakening power of the Qing Dynasty, uprising of mass rebellions, invasion of foreign powers, and extensive long-term starvation pushed the migration of Chinese, to answer the labor demands of mines, estates, and harbors in British Malaya in the mid-18th century. A significant portion of them settled in the British colony as workers, traders, or businessmen, and many of these Chinese diaspora retained strong ties to China.

The arrival of Chinese women in the 1920s increased marriages and prompted the soaring numbers of second generation Chinese. A home-based private schooling system (私塾‎) was hosted by well-to-do Chinese families to educate their children with Chinese literature in Classical Chinese—Wen Yan Wen (文言文‎)— to retain strong ties to their homeland in China.

At the same time, Chinese public schools (学堂‎) and academic colleges (书院‎) were established by Chinese guilds and associations (社团‎) for their members, who did not have the luxury of private schooling. For example, the Teochew Association (潮州会馆‎) set up the Han-Chiang School (韩江学校‎) for the Teochews; and the Shang-Wu School (商务学校‎) was established by the Ng-Fook-Thong Cantonese District Association (五福堂广州府会馆‎) for the Cantonese. Other clan-based schools were Eng-Chuan-Tong Tan Family School (颖川堂陈氏学校‎) and Kew-Leong-Tong Lim Family School (九龙堂林氏学校‎).

Wealthy businessmen were the main benefactors of these education institutions. Better known as the Chinese school committees (董事‎), these caretakers provided financial support to cover the expenses of the Chinese schools, and they recruited academic and administrative staff (most from China) for the schools. More often, the school committees acted as the owners of the schools and bore the responsibility for making decisions and sustaining the operation of the schools.

After the short yet significant national cultural, political, and educational Hundred Days Reform Movement (百日维新‎) in China, in 1898, the modern Chinese school (新式华校‎) model—which enabled education opportunities to be accessible to all students, regardless of their origins, economic background, or social status—was popularized in British Malaya. The competition between Kang You Wei’s (康有为‎) Emperor Protection Society (保皇会‎) and Sun Yat San’s (孙中山‎) South Seas Revolution Alliance (南洋同盟会‎) to secure support from the Chinese communities in Malaya resulted in both camps establishing modern schools as a platform to deliver their political ideology influences.4 As a consequence, the number of modern Chinese schools skyrocketed. The physical infrastructure, academic system, and school-related community of the modern Chinese school established during this time became the necessary factors for the continuation of the Chinese education system in independent Malaya.

Chinese schools were allowed to coexist with other school streams during the colonial era. Nevertheless, these vernacular schools received no financial support from the colonial government. School operations relied solely on donations or sponsorship. The British began to impose strong regulations and restrictions on Chinese schools during the 1940s and 1950s, as Chinese schools were used as centers to distribute the political propaganda of Kuomingtang (国民党‎), or Communist Party (共产党‎), by some Chinese school principals and teachers.5 Following the victory of the Communist Party in 1949, British officers, along with their Malay bureaucratic underlings, justified their control over Chinese schools as an anti-Communist measurement.6

The position of Chinese schools in Malaya was further shaken with the intensified communal violence between the Malaya multiethnic communities after the defeat of Japan in World War II. The Malayan Communist Party and the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (a political association controlled by the Malayan Communist Party) clashed with the Japanese collaborators (most of whom were Malays) in Malaya during the post-war transition period (March to August, 1945).7 As a consequence, some 2,500 Malays were killed. There were also attempts made to abolish the sultanates, with the ambition to make Malaya part of China. Such political moves by the Chinese-dominated Malayan Communist Party were perceived as threat to both Islam and the Malay community.8

Rocky Transition From British Malaya to a New Nation

It was during such turmoil that local politicians such as Abdul Rahman (president of United Malay National Organization, 1951–1970) and Tan Cheng Lock (president of Malayan Chinese Organization, 1949–1958) began to collaborate through political coalition to alleviate the community tensions. They formed the Alliance—a political coalition to make a peaceful demand for state independence from the British. Nonetheless, the new country’s policy, including the educational policy, was illustrative. Malay elites, who wanted to institute Malay as the official language, had successfully lobbied the Federal Legislative Council to pass the 1952 Education Ordinance. The Ordinance recommended a single, multi-racial education system, where both English and Malay would be taught, and a common curriculum would be introduced. It also recommended that all vernacular schools be abolished.9

The Chinese community reacted to this decision with uproar and rebuttal. To defend the status of Chinese education in this rocky and uncertain transition from a colony to a new nation state, the Malayan Chinese Association (Chinese political party within the Alliance coalition), in 1953, along with the United Chinese School Committees’ Association (华校董事联合会总‎) and the United Chinese Schoolteachers’ Association (华校教师会总会‎), drew up the framework of the Grand Three Associations of Chinese Education (三大机构华文教育中央委员会‎). Under this framework, Chinese educationalist representatives were able to procure political compromises from the Malay political elites. Brokered and bridged by committed Chinese politicians, the Grand Three Associations of Chinese Education yielded some significant achievements in the 1950s.

The Chinese educationalist representatives negotiated with Abdul Rahman and the Malay elites during the 1955 Malacca Meeting. The outcomes were overwhelming. The Alliance coalition endorsed not to destroy the schools, language, and culture of any race in the country, and they agreed to remove provisions in the Education Ordinance that threatened the existence of vernacular schools. This led to the integration of Chinese schools into the national educational system. In return, the Chinese educationalist representatives agreed to adopt a common syllabus, and the teaching of Malay and English languages would be compulsory. This was probably the most groundbreaking achievement by the Grand Three, as it secured the coexistence of vernacular schools within the Malay-dominated national education system.10

The Alliance’s representatives, however, rejected the demand to include Mandarin as Malaysia’s second official language in their election manifesto. After facilitation by the Malayan Chinese Association, the Chinese education supporters agreed to postpone their demands on the issue of installing Mandarin as an official language until after the election.11 Having support from the majority Chinese and Malays, the Alliance coalition won a landslide victory at the 1955 Federal Legislative Council elections. The first self-government by the local population under the British Malaya system was formed on August 2, 1955, with Abdul Rahman becoming the territory’s chief minister.

However, deadlocks over the constitutional status of Mandarin as one of Malaysia’s official languages remained unresolved and became the main factor that resulted in the withdrawal of Malayan Chinese Association’s second party president Lim Chong Eu (林苍佑‎) and his reform faction, in 1959. Lacking strong support from the party in the ensuing years, the Grand Three Associations of Chinese Education collaboration started to crumble and reacted poorly to the challenges imposed by the 1961 Education Act.

Political relationship within the Alliance coalition was intensified following the dramatic departure of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. The proportion of Chinese in Malaysia’s population dropped from 42% to 25%, reducing their political influence significantly. To strengthen their political influence, more than 180 Chinese guilds and associations nationwide attended the Anti-Invasion National Convention (华团反侵略大会‎), held in June 1965. It demanded that Chinese be instated as an official language of Malaysia. Chinese community leaders also submitted a memorandum to the prime minister to demand that the government include Chinese as an official language under the 1966 National Language Bill.

Unfortunately, the new nation entered a two-year State of Emergency after the ethnic riots of May 13, 1969—one day after the Alliance coalition lost their two-thirds parliamentary majority in the elections. As a consequence, the Alliance was reformed as the National Front coalition (Barisan Nasional), and Abdul Razak (1970–1976) became the second prime minister of Malaysia in September 1970.

Nation Building and Vernacular Schools’ Resource Mobilization Strategies Since 1971

Abdul Razak’s regime sought to restructure state and society relations in Malaysia, and the centerpiece of this overhaul, the New Economic Policy, was introduced in 1971. Added to that, the Sedition Act 1948 was revised in 1969, making it an offence to question the provisions of Malay language as the only national language, amongst others. In response, many Chinese communities began to relate the right to operate Chinese schools in a “Chinese way” to the preservation of their culture and to the security of their ethnic identity amid heavy-handed nation-building policies.

Facing increasing assimilative measures from the state, the minority communities grew increasingly insecure about their ability to defend and preserve their ethnic and cultural identities. It was during these extraordinary times that the national independent Chinese secondary schools revival movement was established in December 1973. In fact, the operation of independent Chinese secondary schools began to regress badly from 1963 to 1972. The abolishment of the Malayan Secondary School Entrance Examination in 1963 and the implementation of nine years of free education for all citizens in 1964 drew new enrollment away from independent, fee-collecting Chinese secondary schools. As a consequence, a quarter of the independent Chinese secondary schools were shut down by 1969.

By April 1972, a fundraising and public awareness campaign was hosted in the state of Perak to help mobilize resources needed to revive the independent Chinese secondary schools in that state. The campaign gained momentum after the organizers perceptively began to highlight the concept of (义‎)—a voluntary and righteous behavior to protect the weak. Donations were generated through charity campaigns involving sales of food, fishing, trishaw-riding, and “One-person, One-dollar” donations, among others.12

The campaign garnered support from the Chinese community in Perak, and some from other states—in particular from those who had suffered under the Emergency Decree and who were unsatisfied with the New Economic Policy system. The target of (Malaysian currency) RM 1,000,000 was reached by 1972. Financial resources collected were used to maintain school buildings, enhance school facilities, and provide scholarships and loans for students. In addition, the campaign also restored parents’ confidence in sending their children to these schools.13

As a result, student enrollment in the nine independent Chinese secondary schools in Perak increased from about 2,500 in 1970 to roughly 5,100 in 1976.14 Riding on the increasing popularity, school principals of these schools collaborated in drafting a unified school curriculum and uniform textbooks. Each school was responsible for developing a designated subject textbook—for example, the Chinese language textbook was developed by Pei Yuan (培元独中‎), English language textbook by Yuk Choy (育才独中‎), and Malay textbook by Nan Hwa (南华独中‎). Textbooks were also developed for mathematics (by Hua Lian华联独中‎), history (by San Min 三民独中‎), geography (by Yik Ching育青独中‎), commerce (by Shen Jai深斋独中‎), and science (by Poi Lam培南独中‎).15 This was a ground breaking move, and for the first time since the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the independent Chinese secondary schools began to have a common curriculum.

Over the same period, the Independent Chinese Secondary School Seminar (华文独中研讨会‎), in March 1973, successfully gathered Chinese educationalists from the state of Selangor to draft the Guiding Principles of Educational Reform of Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary Schools (华文独立中学建议书‎). This document was used as the blueprint for national reform of independent Chinese secondary school during the National Conference for Independent Chinese Secondary School Development in December 1973. In the same conference, the National Independent Chinese Secondary School Development Working Committee (全国发展华文独立中学工作委会‎) was established. In addition, the Development Fund and the Educational Affairs Working Committee was established. The latter was divided into the Unified Curriculum Subcommittee and the Unified Examination Subcommittee. These committees became the key elements in mobilizing the nationwide independent Chinese secondary school revival movement.16

The Working Committee, widely regarded as the de facto education ministry for the Chinese community in Malaysia, has achieved a few important benchmarks thus far. For example, they successfully compiled an independent Chinese secondary school lower secondary textbook in 1979, with an adapted syllabus from the Ministry of Education curriculum, but custom-made for the independent Chinese secondary school’s requirements.17 By 2011, the Working Committee had designed more than 280 textbooks that served as teaching materials for the independent Chinese secondary schools system.18 The sale of these textbooks was one of the most important sources of income for the Chinese education movement.

Another proud benchmark for the Working Committee is the Unified Examination Certificate (华文独中高初中统一考试‎). The Unified Examination Subcommittee was responsible for planning and executing the examination as an assessment and credential tool for independent Chinese secondary school students. Open only to independent Chinese secondary school students, the examination was divided into the senior level, junior level (since 1973), vocational, and technical examinations (since 1987). As demonstrated by Table 1, an accumulative total of 569,531 candidates had taken the three categories of Unified Examination Certificate from 1975 to 2016.

Table 1. Unified Examination Certificate Candidates (1975–2015)


Unified Examination Certificate




Vocational and Technical

































































































































































































Note: United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia, Renshi Tongkao认识统考‎ [Knowing more about United Examination Certificate].

Although the Malaysian authority has been reluctant to recognize the Unified Examination Certificate as an academic qualification for entry into its national universities, the Unified Examination Certificate is widely acknowledged by universities worldwide today. In May 2010, the government agreed to qualify Unified Examination Certificate holders enrolled in local private universities for the government university loan known as the National Higher Education Fund Corporation.19 It is expected that the government will gradually accept the qualification of this Certificate due to political pressure imposed by the Chinese political parties and communities alike.

The third element of Independent Chinese Secondary School Working Committee was the Development Fund (全国华文独中发展基金‎). A nationwide fundraising campaign was launched in March 1974, collecting almost RM 3,000,000 within the first year it was introduced. Donations had become an important source to the Working Committee. These resources were used for hiring full-time executives and for purchasing facilities and hardware for the Unified Examination Certificate and for textbook printing.20 The Sponsorship Program (全国华文独中发展基金常年赞助人‎) was introduced in 1984 as a channel for the public to participate and contribute to Working Committee activities.21 With a minimal annual donation of RM 100, sponsors received a certificate, newsletter (华教导报‎), annual report, and a Chinese Education Member Card (华教卡‎). Most importantly, they were entitled to participate in the annual sponsors meeting to monitor the planning of annual activities and financial budget of the Working Committee.

Under the strategic reforms conducted by the Working Committee, the independent Chinese secondary school revival movement has achieved its objectives. Most of the independent Chinese secondary schools in the central and southern regions of West Malaysia have stabilized annual student intakes. As demonstrated in Table 2, student enrollment at these schools has increased from 28,318 students in 1973 to a high of 59,773 in 1994. Although there was a slight sign of reduction in student enrollment after 1994, the total enrollment number has remained above 53,000 since. Beginning in 2005, there has been a gradual increase in student enrollments, and the total student population reached an all-time high of 84,363 in 2016.

Table 2. Independent Chinese Secondary School Students in Malaysia (1973–2016)


Total Students















































































Note: United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia, Malaixiya Huaxiao Dongshihui Zonghui Dongjiaozong Huawen Duzhong Fazhan Gongzuo Weiyuanhui 2015 Nian Gongzuo Baogaoshu 马来西亚华校董事会总会 董教总华文独中发展工作委员会‎2015 年工作报告书‎ [United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia and Dongjiaozong Independent Chinese Secondary Schools Working Committee 2015 working report]. Selangor, Malaysia: United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia, 2016), p. 375; Data for year 2016 is acquired through phone interviews with the officers at Department of Resource (资料与档案局‎), United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia on 13 December 2016.

However, although two thirds of the Chinese schools are incorporated into the national system, these schools were not able to generate sufficient and sustainable resources (in particular financial grants and qualified school teachers) in the 1970s because of skewed implementation of educational policies and insufficient distribution of state resources. The promotion of Malay-medium national schools as the school of choice for all Malaysians has unavoidably marginalized the development of vernacular schools in the country. A comparison of funds (see Table 3) allocated under the Malaysia Plans best demonstrates that Chinese primary schools received considerably less funding in proportion to the student distribution ratio since 1971.

Although the vernacular schools—Chinese and Tamil alike—are entitled to state funding, it is either insufficient, not to proportion, or not being delivered. Education is an expensive investment, and schools must continue to operate despite funding problems. Therefore, financial contributions from members of Chinese school committees and supporters of the schools remain the most important income in sustaining expenses of the schools.

Table 3. Public Funds for Primary Schools Under Malaysia Plans (1972–2011)

National Schools

Chinese Schools

Tamil Schools

Total (RM)


237,118,327 (91%)

18,097,380 (7%)

5,892,660 (2%)

261,108,367 (100%)

Number of Students in 1970

1,046,513 (67%)

439,681 (28%)

79,278 (5%)


Sixth Malaysia Plan (1991–1995)

1,133,076,000 (90%)

102,726,000 (8%)

27,042,000 (2%)


Number of Students in 1991

1,845,400 (73%)

583,218 (23%)

99,876 (4%)


Seventh Malaysia Plan (1996–2000)

1,027,167,000 (97%)

25,970,000 (2%)

10,902,000 (1%)


Number of Students in 1996

2,128,227 (75%)

595,451 (21%)

102,679 (4%)


Eighth Malaysia Plan (2001–2005)

4,708,800,000 (96%)

133,600,000 (3%)

57,600,000 (1%)


Number of Students in 2001

2,209,736 (76%)

616,402 (21%)

88,810 (3%)


Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006–2010)

4,598,120,000 (95%)

174,340,000 (4%)

54,840,000 (1%)


Number of Students in 2006

2,298,808 (76%)

636,124 (21%)

100,142 (3%)


Tenth Malaysia Plan (2011–2015)

Data no longer available for public reference

Number of Students in 2011

2,150,139 (75%)

598,488 (21%)

102,642 (4%)

2,851,269 (100%)

Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016–2020)

Data no longer available for public reference.

Number of Students in 2011

Note: Ministry of Education, Educational Statistics of Malaysia 1981; 1991; 1996; 2001; 2006 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Ministry of Education Malaysia, 1981, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006).

Often, the chairman of the Chinese school committees (董事长‎) lead the fundraising and seek donations from communities. To engage in successful fundraising campaigns, a chairman must plan strategically by targeting donors through personal connections and must work closely with collaborations of schoolteachers and parents. For years, the Chinese and other communities living near a Chinese school have been invited to pay a “second income tax”—a term used by the Chinese school supporters to refer to donations made to Chinese education activities. Such practice continues till today.

Chinese Schools for All Malaysians

Another alarming challenge faced by the Chinese schools in Malaysia is the decreasing proportion of ethnic Chinese population in Malaysia. According to Population Projections Malaysia 2010–2040, the percentage of Chinese population has declined from 51.6% in 1947 to a low of 25.4% in 2010. It is predicted that the ratio will continue to drop (see Table 4) due to a reduction in the fertility rate among ethnic Chinese families in Malaysia.22

Table 4. Ethnic Distribution of the Demography in Malaya and Malaysia, 1947–2040 (000s)


Bumiputra no.(%)




Total (100%)


3,022 (55%)

1,871 (34%)

531 (10%)

73 (1%)



3,987 (55%)

2,398 (33%)

723 (10%)

115 (2%)



5,873 (58%)

3,274 (32%)

948 (9%)

103 (1%)



7,561.2 (60%)

3,865.4 (31%)

1,171.1 (9%)

74.5 (1%)



10,224.3 (62%)

4,521 (27%)

1,380 (8%)

410.5 (2%)



23,188.4 (73%)

6,430.4 (20%)

1,924.9 (6%)

232 (1%)



27,130.3 (75%)

6,827.1 (19%)

2,096.5 (6%)

306.1 (1%)



30,989.7 (76%)

7,042.2 (17%)

2,220.9 (5%)

389.8 (1%)



33,934 (78%)

7,098.9 (16%)

2,257.8 (5%)

477.3 (1%)


Note: Richard Leete, Malaysia’s Demographic Transition (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 9, 18; Department of Statistics Federation of Malaya, (1960); 1957 Population Census of the Federation of Malaya Report (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Federation of Malaya, 1960), pp. 14–15; Department of Statistics Malaysia (2012) Population Projections Malaysia 2010–2040 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Department of Statistics, 1960), p. 5.

Because Chinese school enrollments are dominated by ethnic Chinese, a drop in the proportion of the Chinese population has caused a simultaneous decrease in student enrollment. For example, ethnic Chinese students’ enrollment in Chinese primary schools in year 2010 was 88%,23 while ethnic Chinese student enrollment in independent Chinese primary schools in year 2012 was 98%, and 90% in converted Chinese secondary schools.24 The drop of Chinese population will likely trigger a scarcity of schoolteachers in Chinese schools, in particular, in the independent Chinese secondary schools, where a total of 87% of schoolteachers are ethnic Chinese.25

To sustain sufficient school students to the Chinese schools, Chinese education activists have advocated that ethnic Chinese parents send their children to Chinese primary schools since the 1950s. The spike in student enrollment in Chinese schools happened after English medium schools were systematically phased out in the 1970s. Chinese parents who used to favor competence in English have opted to send their children to the second best option available—the Chinese schools—which, in turn, revived the role of Chinese school committees.

Nevertheless, the government’s promotion of national schools since 1957 has halted the formation of new vernacular schools. All the slots for schools in the new housing areas have been exclusively reserved for Malay-medium national schools.26 Therefore, Chinese schools located in heavily Chinese-populated neighborhoods have become increasingly overcrowded. Most Chinese schools operated in two sessions (morning and afternoon), with an average of 50 students squeezed into one classroom to accommodate expanding student populations. Chinese school committees of these schools had to expand the schools’ infrastructure to accommodate annually spiking student populations.

Because enrollment for the overpopulated Chinese schools is exceedingly competitive, recommendations from school committee members have become the best means of securing enrollment for new students. In Chinese schools, each committee member is entitled to recommend a certain number of candidates into the school. Although the 1957 Education Ordinance has limited the maximum size of a school committee to 15, in reality, their numbers in Chinese schools may reach up to a hundred. A majority of them are honorary school committee members who have contributed donations to the school and have used their donor-beneficiary relationship with local communities to secure their social status. This relationship helps to solidify committee members’ social status within the Chinese community. It also motivates important, successful businessmen to continue to involve themselves and invest their time as members of Chinese school committees. Incomes from the school sponsorship system also contribute to the operational and management expenses of the school.

Many schools located in smaller towns, however, face the crippling problem of diminishing community population and shrinking student enrollment. As urbanization of larger cities continues apace, many of these schools face the threat of closure. By January 2013, a total of 455, or 35% of Chinese primary schools in Malaysia had fewer than 150 students and were categorized as Schools with Insufficient Students. Among these schools, 14 schools had less than 10 students and faced the threat of closure.27

To overcome the shortage of student problems, Chinese school committees from schools with insufficient numbers of students sought assistance from Barisan Nasional ethnic Chinese politicians to broker permission from the Ministry of Education to relocate the schools into highly Chinese-populated areas. The relocation will injecting new opportunities for these schools, and more importantly, solved the deteriorating physical structures of schools that were built during the colonial era.

Between 1999 and 2014, a total of 84 Chinese primary schools were approved for relocation under this mechanism.28 However, the stakes were high for these Chinese schools as this mechanism was time consuming, costly, and easily manipulated by ill-intended politicians, with little guarantee of results. Furthermore, only 80% (or 67 schools) of these schools were relocated successfully by 2013, while the remaining 20% of these schools continue to face difficulties in securing sufficient resources or in locating a suitable and affordable location for new school premises.29

Looking at the challenges faced by the Chinese schools, in the urban and rural areas, having non-ethnic Chinese students will probably become the most sustainable strategy to ensure sufficient number of student’s enrollments. According to the Ministry of Education’s statistics, there are 65,000 non-Chinese children (10.7%) studying in Chinese primary schools. Non-ethnic Chinese families appear to have a positive regard for the academic accreditation of Chinese schools. The number of non-ethnic Chinese students in Chinese primary schools rose from 17,309 students (about 3%) in 1989 to 65,000 students (10%) in 1999. Bumiputera students constituted some 45,000 students (7%) in Chinese primary schools in 2005. There were also 13,207 non-ethnic Chinese students in converted Chinese secondary schools in 2010.30

Despite the upward trend, however, many Chinese school committees remain skeptical about this development. The reasons underlying these concerns spring from the lack of trust in the state and its agencies, fears of the dilution and eventual loss of the identity of Chinese schools, and fears of being targeted as a threat to the national school system.

Opportunities and Dilemmas in the Further Development of Chinese Education in Malaysia

In the face of the worldwide growing importance of Mandarin, as a result of China’s rapid economic and political ascendancy, mastering Mandarin has become a great motivation for Malaysians, regardless of their ethnic origins. The Chinese education model is now an important asset, not only for the rising value of Mandarin, but as a demonstration of coexistence and endurance of vernacular education within a multicultural nation.

The increasing political opportunities in Malaysia since the Pakatan Rakyat (reshuffled Pakatan Harapan, in 2016) coalition successfully overturned Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds majority in the parliament since 2008, and the Barisan Nasional leaders have adopted a more accommodative approach towards the demands for the Chinese education. At the same time, the state governments controlled by Pakatan Rakyat have been implementing various pro-vernacular education policies and allocating financial resources to Chinese schools in their states.

Despite the increasing political opportunities, mounting internal factionalism within the Chinese communities have distracted movement leaders from exploiting these political opportunities to their fullest potential as they have been preoccupied with managing and resolving internal movement problems. Burdened by exclusiveness, conservatism, and internal faction, most Chinese schools have also failed to extend themselves as schools for all Malaysians, beyond ethnicity or religious boundaries.

Such reluctance can be understood from the lack of trust and low confidence of the Chinese schools community, who have been frustrated with the state’s continuous marginalization, imposed on them for more than six decades. Constant threats of dilution, conversion, and demolition of the Chinese schools, through implementation of exclusive education policies and programs have prompted the Chinese schools community to believe that, for Chinese culture to survive and flourish in Malaysia, Chinese schools must thrive in a “Chinese way.”

However, the definition of “Chinese schools in a Chinese way” has never been studied systematically or justified to today’s Malaysia context. Compared to the earliest forms in Malaya, Chinese schools are no longer managed by an autonomous school committee, and Mandarin no longer serves as the only medium of instruction. Instead, these schools are administered by Chinese-speaking schoolteachers, no matter their ethnic and religious background. Similarly, students from various ethnicities, religions, and social or economic status are entitled to received Chinese education for free under the national education system. In fact, contemporary Chinese schools in Malaysia have been built on a strong foundation of inclusive and universal principles introduced since the modern Chinese school system. In addition, these Chinese schools offer the unique value of reliable and competitive academic credentials, trilingual (Mandarin, English, and Malay) proficiencies, and an emphasis on the moral and comprehensive instruction of students.

The success of the revival movement for the independent Chinese secondary schools has demonstrated that transformation and reformation of the education system are fully possible. The factors that prompted this success are not the opportunities, but the commitments from experts and academics from the Chinese community. More importantly, the sales of textbooks and the collection of Unified Examination Certificate fees have generated important sustainable financial resources for the schools. The quality of these education systems is good, and students number are now snowballing.

Therefore, school benefactors should now be able to identify the differences between cultural and political meaning of Chinese schools, from the linguistic and academic contexts. Only through such efforts would the community of Chinese education in Malaysia be able to develop the most suitable and efficient methods for making Chinese schools the most successful and inclusive educational institutions, for all Malaysians.


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