By The Star’s News Team
PUTRAJAYA: Umno Youth chief candidate Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir’s suggestion that the vernacular school system contributed to racial polarisation and should be scrapped has raged into a full-blown controversy.
Some leaders have urged action against him, saying that he had committed sedition, while Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak moved quickly to assure minorities of their constitutional rights.
Vernacular schools will continue to exist as long as the Chinese and Indian communities need such a school system, Najib said.
He said it had been a long-standing government policy to allow Malaysians to choose the school system they want to adopt and enrol into, MAZWIN NIK ANIS reports.
Najib said vernacular or national type schools have been part of the country’s education system and their existence was recognised even in law.
“For as long as the Indian and Chinese communities need to have vernacular schools, they will continue to be a part of the national education system.
“It has been the principle of the Government to give all individuals the freedom to adopt a school or education system of their choice.
“That is also the basis of the Razak Report and there is no deadline for the existence of vernacular schools in Malaysia,” he told reporters after chairing the National Council for Local Government’s 61st meeting on Tuesday.
On Mukhsiz’s claims that the vernacular school system had caused polarisation within Malaysian society, Najib said the allegation was debatable.
“The Chinese and Indians in this country are of the opinion that such schools are important to them. It is a place for them to instil certain values among their young.
“For instance, not everyone in the Chinese society are of the same faith and they feel having a vernacular school will act as a platform to instil useful and positive values among community members,” he said.
Mukhriz’s call for vernacular schools to be scrapped saw an immediate and strong reaction by political leaders.
In Parliament, Opposition parties hit out at the son of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for blaming the vernacular school system as the cause of a polarised society.
DAP Parliamentary Leader and Ipoh Timor MP Lim Kit Siang claimed that Mukhriz had committed a seditious offence in questioning one of the four sensitive issues entrenched in the Constitution and said he can be disqualified as an MP upon conviction.
“The Constitution Amendment 1971 imposed an absolute prohibition against questioning these four issues and removed parliamentary immunity in parliamentary debates,” he said at the Parliament lobby, reports LOH FOON FONG.
The Sedition Act does not allow anyone to propose the closure of Chinese or Tamil primary schools, just as one cannot question the special provision for Malays and natives in Sabah and Sarawak in Article 153, Lim said.
“If Mukhriz wants to publicly pursue his proposal of a single education system resulting in the closure of the schools, he must get the Constitutional provision on the four entrenched sensitive issues amended and repealed,” he said.
He said that in the case Melan Abdullah vs Public Prosecutor (1971), Utusan Malaysia was found guilty of sedition for an editorial titled Hapuskan Sekolah Beraliran Tamil atau China di-Negeri ini (Abolish Tamil and Chinese medium schools in the country).
In the case of Mark Koding vs Public Prosecutor, the Sabah MP was found guilty of sedition when he spoke in Parliament in 1978 calling for the closure of such schools.
On whether DAP would lodge a police report against Mukhriz, he said “no.”
Lim said that racial polarisation was not being caused by vernacular schools but by “divisive national policies.”
His son Lim Guan Eng however called on Mukhriz to retract his statement, warning that otherwise the Government must take action against him, just as action was taken against Koding.
“We hope he will retract this sensitive statement as soon as possible,” said the Penang Chief Minister, adding that it was not right for Mukhriz to fish for votes to win the Umno Youth chief post.
Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim said racial polarisation was not due to vernacular schools, but said there was a need to upgrade education for all races.
He said the Selangor state government had allocated RM10mil to vernacular and religious schools.
PAS deputy president Nasaruddin Mat Isa said it was the right of each race to be educated in their mother tongue, which in itself is a culture that needs to be protected.
PKR adviser and Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said Mukhriz wanted to appeal to extreme Malay views to win the Umno election, but failed to realise that there were certain Constitutional guarantees for vernacular schools.
“While it was all right to call for all races to study under one roof, abolishing the schools sounds like returning to the age of extremism,” he said.
“We have to respect the rights of parents to send their children to schools of their choice,” Anwar added.
In reply, Mukhriz said he would not retract his statement because he did not call for vernacular schools to be closed down.
“I said the system should be one. I don’t think the issue of closing schools arises. That is the last thing I want,” he said.
The school remains the same physically and it is the system that needs changing -- the medium of instruction should eventually be Bahasa Malaysia, except for Science and Mathematics, he said, adding that this would include religious schools.
’A-G should take action’
The MIC also urged the Attorney-General to institute action against Mukhriz for his allegedly seditious words, reports A. LETCHUMANAN.
Like DAP’s Lim, MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu claimed that Mukhriz had violated provisions in the Federal Constitution which protected the position and rights of vernacular schools.
“He has issued a seditious statement and we want the Attorney-General to take appropriate action against him,” Samy Vellu said in a statement here on Tuesday, accusing Mukhriz of raising “sensitive issues” to canvass for votes in the upcoming UMNO Youth elections.
“He can contest the UMNO Youth chief post but he should not point a dagger at the hearts of the other communities to win the post,” he said, adding that the MIC had never questioned the rights of the Malays as enshrined in the Constitution.
MIC Youth coordinator T. Mohan urged Mukhriz to go to the ground and visit Tamil and Chinese schools to understand the real situation.
“It is easy for one to issue statements to become popular but it should not be at the expense of the feelings of the other communities,” he said.
Mohan said that it has been the practice of some politicians to use sensitive issues to garner cheap publicity in their bid to be seen as champions in their parties.
These politicians, including Mukhriz, should understand that the MIC and MCA -- which represent Indian and Chinese interests respectively -- would not remain quiet on this, he said.
He said Barisan Nasional should come out with proper guidelines to prevent leaders contesting in party elections from using controversial issues to gather support.
Meanwhile MIC Youth advisor S. Vell Paari, Samy Vellu’s son, described Mukhriz’s statement as “irresponsible.”
“This is a totally irresponsible view of a leader who aspires to the highest position in UMNO Youth, the largest Youth component in Barisan Nasional,” he said.
He said Mukhriz did not understand the significance of vernacular schools to their respective communities, adding that children not only learn to read, write and speak their language, but also learn the cultures, traditions and the heritages of their race.
Police report lodged
In George Town, Penang DAP lodged a police report against Mukhriz, reports BERNARD SEE.
Paya Terubong assemblyman Yeoh Soon Hin made the report at the Patani Road police station on behalf of the party.
“He is calling for all Chinese and Tamil schools in the country to be closed and this will be inadvertently affect the racial harmony which we have been enjoying for so long.
“I hope that the police will take the appropriate action against him,” he said.
A police spokesman confirmed receiving the report and said it would be sent to the Kuala Lumpur police for further investigations.
In Ipoh, Perak State Assembly speaker V. Sivakumar said the issue of unity had nothing to do with the system practised at schools.
Citing national schools as an example, Sivakumar said children of the three races were studying there but pupils would still stick to their own races during games or recess, SYLVIA LOOI reports.
“Putting pupils of different races in the same room will not enhance unity,” he added, adding that if the Education Ministry was serious about promoting it, there should be a subject on unity in the curriculum.
Blame the political system
In Kota Kinabalu, the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) objected strongly to Mukhriz’s suggestion.
SAPP Youth chief Edward Dagul said Mukhriz should be honest and admit that the real problem lies with politicians in the current communal-based political party system found within Barisan Nasional coalition.
Dagul said that Barisan’s racial ideologies meant that Umno championed only Malay causes, with MCA for the Chinese community and MIC for the Indians, MUGUNTAN VANAR reports.
“When our society sees this as the ruling coalition’s formula for national integration, then this concept of compartmentalisation is accepted and adopted as the norm.
“That’s why no one will speak up for another Malaysian if he is not of the same race. The idea that it is ‘better left to someone of their own kind’ will seep in. This results in further polarisation,” he said.
He said SAPP was disappointed that Mukhriz has decided to adopt this stand as it was nothing more than an exercise in garnering more support in his bid for the Umno Youth chief post.
Dagul said Mukhriz should instead talk more of Bangsa Malaysia and Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020) as advocated by his father Mahathir, instead of harping on racially sensitive issues.
“The country’s success lies with its cultural diversity and the mutual respect shown for one another,” he added.