SINGAPORE — Chinese education authorities in multiracial Malaysia have rejected a government pilot project to merge the country’s three different kinds of vernacular schools — Malay, Chinese and Tamil — into a single national institution, dubbed “Vision Schools,” that would embody Malaysian identity.

The ethnic group claims that the proposal would lead to Chinese schools losing their cultural identity.

But Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in disputing such a claim, is adamant that the proposal must be carried out irrespective of whether the Chinese schools would participate, as the other two streams of schools — Malay and Tamil (southern Indian) — have not objected, indicating their approval.

The concept of Vision Schools — where the trilingual schools share common facilities like the canteen, playing field and school hall, but continue to teach in their different respective media — was in fact mooted in 1985.

But it was quietly dropped due to opposition from Chinese education officials, who cited the possible loss of cultural identity for the Chinese schools.

The Chinese side today is composed administrators and teachers associations of Chinese schools. Collectively they are known as the Dong Jiao Zhong (DJZ) which has acted independently of the government in looking after the affairs of the 1,284 Chinese primary and 60 Chinese secondary schools in Malaysia.

The Chinese community recognizes the DJZ as its spokesmen in the realm of education. What the DJZ had feared was that in any merger, the Malay schools, which had been accorded the status of national or “Malaysian” schools and given preferential treatment, would dominate.

Its logical conclusion is that over a number of years, the Chinese and Tamil schools would gradually be converted or evolve into Malay schools.

The Vision School concept could have been kept in perpetual cold storage had not a recent survey on student interaction in Malaysia’s local universities shown that at least 80 percent of Malay, Chinese and Indian students prefer to socialize within their own race instead of crossing the ethnic boundaries.

It led to criticism that this was bad for national integration. Reacting to suggestions that Malaysians of different races should interact more with each other at a young age to facilitate national integration, the government decided to revive the concept in 1995.

The Ministry of Education then announced in August this year that 12 Vision Schools nationwide would be set up to see how well the concept would work. The date of the pilot project has yet to be decided, but it is expected to be next year.

On the surface of things, many analysts contend that the concept is a laudable vehicle for national integration, an elusive goal after 43 years of Malaysian independence.

However the move to integrate the different races through the realm of education has always been fraught with difficulties, because it is closely intertwined with racially-divisive politic.

Politics along the lines of race advocated by the ruling National Front (NF) coalition government and its predecessor, the Alliance since 1957, had the effect of making Malaysians of different racial backgrounds place their ethnic origins — Malay, Chinese and Indian — ahead of their common Malaysian national identity.

The composition of the NF itself is a reflection of the racial groupings. The main coalition partners are the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, each one openly and exclusively championing the rights of their communities.

Explaining how Chinese schools could lose their cultural identity eventually, DJZ Executive Secretary Bok Tai Hee said recently, “Historically it can be shown that the government’s ultimate objective is to have only one medium of instruction for all schools, and that is Malay.”

UMNO has always made it clear that Malaysia is first and foremost a Malay nation, and an important symbol of nationhood like education must be Malay-based.

Analysts have contended that even if the pilot project of the 12 Vision Schools is successful, the logistics of implementing the concept on a national scale involving thousands of different-media schools which are spread out over a wide area would have to be painstakingly worked out.

But such a prospect has not stopped both sides — the Malay-led NF and the DJZ — from digging in their heels in an issue whose battle lines continue to highlight the explosive nature of racial politics in Malaysia.

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