Despite growing concerns of racial polarisation in the national and vernacular school education system today, multiracial schools were once a reality.
Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers former president Yong Poh Kon said English-medium schools were among the most multiracial before they were abruptly phased out after the 1969 race riots.
"The sad part is we had a multiracial schooling system, but nowadays 94 percent of Malays are in national schools while 88 percent of Chinese are in Chinese schools.
"In fact, the Chinese schools are more multiracial than national schools," he told a forum entitled ‘Malaysian education system: Can we bring back the quality?’
According to the National Education Blueprint (NEB), as of 2011, national primary schools comprise 94 bumiputera, three percent Indian, one percent Chinese and two percent others, while Chinese primary schools comprise 88 percent Chinese, nine percent bumiputera, two percent Indians and others, one percent others.
He added that the English medium schools then were experiencing steady growth as parents saw that they provided better future for their children but in contrast, present day national schools are seeing a decline in enrolment.
Today, Yong lamented that the workers the education system is churning out students lacking sufficient English language communication skills to be employable.
He added that the NEB has set a target of Malaysian students achieving 70 percent 'credit' in the GCE O Level English Language examination by 2025.
However, he said it will be a difficult target to meet, especially with the reversal of the teaching of mathematics and science in English (PPSMI).
"Currently among bumiputeras, only 18 to 20 percent of students get a 'credit' in the Cambridge paper while 50 percent fail, so you can't just set a 70 percent target unless you are going to do something about it," he said.
"With PPSMI, at least you have a striking chance of achieving proficiency in English (target set in NEB) but it is sad to say that PPSMI was phased out.
"(If) you don't change the amount of time English is taught (as previously ), it is not possible to expect different results," he added.
'Only 75pct can pass with a bell curve'
Yong quoted Albert Einstein, saying that is was insanity to repeat the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.
He said that despite the emphasis on the Malay language with a 90 percent target for ‘credit’ under the NEB, it was "impossible" to achieve.
"If it goes by a bell curve, normally only 75 percent can pass. It is impossible to achieve 90 percent credit," he noted.
Also present at the forum were Inti International University chancellor Arshad Ayub, Parents Action Group for Education chairperson Noor Azimah Abd Rahim, Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Shamsuddin Bardan and PKR director of strategy Rafizi Ramli.
Meanwhile, Noor Azimah said that even though the Malaysian schools fared poorly in the Programme for International Student Assessment, the top 10 schools which took the test were actually comparable with those in Shanghai, which ranked number one.
"The test can be answered in English or Malay... nine out of 10 of these schools which scored close to Shanghai chose to answer the test in English.
"But this was not made public because it would be contrary to what the government has in mind for students," she said.
However, Rafizi (right) had a different take on PPSMI, reiterating that Pakatan Rakyat's focus has always been to improve the quality of English teachers instead.
"Let me give you an anecdote, we met a few specialist teachers... one teacher from Kota Baru who had been teaching for 20 to 30 years with pride and was adored by her students, said she feared to go into class due to her problem with the command of English.
"Pakatan's position remains the same, unless we resolve the quality of the pool of English teachers, we may end up not achieving anything (even with PPSMI).
He added that once there is a ready pool of qualified English teachers, then options such as PPSMI or even granting schools autonomy to choose their language of instruction will be more readily available.
He said beyond all else, accessibility of education - especially for the rural folk in Sabah and Sarawak - must also be addressed before more sophisticated education concerns of urbanites can gain traction.