More than half the people polled in a recent survey said Malaysia should not have vernacular schools.

51% out of the 1,024 respondents in the Merdeka 2019 - Malaysia's Racial Development survey said the country should only have single-stream schools.

Two-thirds of respondents (66%) saw single-stream schools as key to the unity of all races, and 51% believed such schools were better platforms for children to mix and integrate at an early age. Also interesting was the fact that only 35% of respondents said their closest friends were of different ethnicities – something which single-stream schools could possibly help change.

The survey commissioned by Malaysiakini and conducted by research firm, was held in conjunction with Merdeka Day. More than half the respondents were between 25 to 35 years, and 80% attended national schools. The respondents' racial demographics closely mirror Malaysia's racial distribution: 69% Bumiputera, 23% Chinese and 8% Indians.

Mahathir's Vision Schools

Back in the early 2000s, Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed launched the 'Vision School' pilot project, which placed 2 to 3 primary schools (national and vernacular) in a complex together. The idea was for this type of clustering to promote racial integration and increase cultural tolerance.

However, in a study called National Integration In Vision School: Towards '1 Malaysia' about the project, it was found that sustaining the viability and relevance of Vision Schools needed ‘much more than sharing school facilities and infrastructure'.

While students were keen on the idea of getting to know different cultures, the study found the concept needed ‘to be reviewed so that both its teaching and learning environment support racial integration'.

Since his second innings as Prime Minister, Mahathir has hinted at the re-introduction of Vision Schools to foster unity among younger Malaysians.

Fear of Racial Discrimination

However, the survey found that supporters of vernacular schools had another pressing concern - 39% said they feared racial discrimination in single-stream schools. This fear was higher among Chinese respondents than Indians.

The Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report 2018 by Pusat Komas observed incidents of racial discrimination in the education sector, especially in schools, ranging from derogatory race-based remarks to physical segregation.

Those who fear or have experienced racial discrimination would no doubt feel uncomfortable with one of the most worrying findings of the survey – 40% of respondents said they weren’t familiar with religions and cultures other than their own. And worse still, 16% said they had no interest or desire to learn.

Identity Before Unity

On top of that, Indians and Chinese respondents didn’t trust the government to preserve their language and culture. However, 24% of Chinese respondents also felt the Chinese school system was superior, while 19% of Indian respondents said there was a lack of discipline in single stream schools.

In August 2019, Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong, speaking at the “Beyond 2020: Fresh Views, New Visions” forum in Sunway College, said national unity can still be fostered with vernacular schools. The Malay Mail reported Liew saying that vernacular schools can only be seen as a characteristic of the nation once we stop fearing each other’s language.

In the end, achieving unity is not as simple as reforming the education system and allowing a collision of cultures between the young minds of the nation. There are layers of racial sentiments that need to be addressed and ignoring it will only cause more damage to the fabric of unity Malaysians have sewn over the decades.

Source: Malay Mail,, Malaysia Kini, National Integration in Vision School: Towards 1Malaysia & MSN
Photo Credit: Malaysia Kini & Tamil Foundation