National Integration In Malaysia: Are The Vernacular Schools Promoting or Preventing?

Dr. Selvajothi Ramalinggam
Deputy President of Tamil Foundation Malaysia

This is a discussion paper with an intention to expose the notion that Vernacular schools at the primary levels are an obstacle in the National Integration process. The elephant in the room is the state driven ethno-centric policies that are constitutionalised and institutionalized. Notwithstanding that Malaysia as a whole flourished over the years with remarkable unity in diversity. Multilingualism and multiculturalism effectively overriding any remoteness of vernacular system becoming an obstacle in national integration.


Malaysia is considered a multi-ethnic, multilingual, and multicultural nation. We are one of the countries in the world that is linguistically diverse. We use many languages, and all of them are equally important for the respective language groups. There are two main types of primary schools in Malaysia namely National Schools – NS (Sekolah Kebangsaan-SK) and National Type Schools that consist of National Type Chinese School-NTCS (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina-SJKC) and National Type Tamil School-NTTS (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil-SJKT) August and Ling (2021). The primary reason is that children in their formative years learn better when their mother tongue language is used as the teaching medium.

Parents are free to choose the type of school for their children, either National Schools or National Type schools at the primary level education (Siah, Christina Ong, Tan, Sim & Xian Thoo, 2018). The medium of instruction in the primary level for NS is Malay, for NTCS is Chinese and for the NTTS is Tamil. After completing six years of primary education, pupils automatically enter secondary level where the medium of instruction is in Malay (except for schools having Dual Language Program [DLP] which use English for Science and Mathematics). However, Malay and English are compulsory subjects in all types of schools in Malaysia. The Razak Report (1956) and the Rahman Talib Report (1960) lead to the 1961 Education Act, instituting the Malay language or Bahasa Melayu (BM) as the national language and the MOI in national schools to promote national unity (Ahmad, 2018).

The difference in the MOI between the two different primary school systems had caused certain segment of people to allege that vernacular schools are an obstacle to national integration. This allegation was initiated by the Gabungan Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung (GPMS), the Malaysian Islamic Education Development Council (MAPPIM), and the Federation of Malaysian Writers Associations (GAPENA). They sought a court declaration that the existence of vernacular schools is contrary to the Federal Constitution because of the provision under Article 152 (1), which defines Malay as the National language (Loheswar, 2019). Though the high court had declared that vernacular schools are constitutional, a group of activists continue to claim and protest that vernacular school pupils lack competency in the learning of national language and thus hindering national unity. Such protests against Chinese and Tamil schools can create tensions among the races that are living in harmony despite the diversities of language, culture, and religion. The aim of this study is to assess how the vernacular school system is promoting and involved in the national integration process in Malaysia. The scope of this study is limited to Tamil schools which form part of the vernacular system in Malaysia.

History of Tamil Education

The first Tamil primary school was opened in Penang in 1816 that marked the beginning of Tamil education in Malaysia. More Tamil schools were established in Penang, Johore, Malacca, and Negeri Sembilan in 1870 (Rajantheran, Muniapan & Govindaraju, 2012). By the end of the nineteenth century, the rubber estates had grown in size, and the estate managers and the British government had opened more Tamil primary schools. When the government established the labour law in 1912, estate managers were required to establish Tamil schools if the estate had more than ten children.
At the time, Tamil schools followed the school curriculum from India and did not teach Malay or English languages. Only reading, writing, and mathematics in their mother tongue were emphasised in the lower primary.

Between 1930 and 1937, the British government made various changes in Tamil education, by establishing a special committee to provide financial aid, appointing inspectors, and began teacher training for Tamil schools. There was also been a significant growth in the number of Tamil schools. The Education Ordinance of 1946 placed a greater emphasis on free mother tongue education. This action paved the path for more pupils to enrol in Tamil schools.

Efforts were made to construct a national education policy as Malaya moved closer to self-government and eventual independence. The Barnes Report published in 1951 and passed as the Education Ordinance of 1952 advocated a national school system with Malay and English as mediums of instruction but Chinese and Tamil schools were excluded. This provoked dissatisfaction among the Chinese and Indians. The Fenn and Wu’s report (1951) further emphasizes the existence of vernacular schools and Chinese as the medium of instruction in Chinese schools (Ahmad & Yusof, 2010).

The Razak Report, which established a national school system with Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil schools at the primary level and Malay and English schools at the secondary level, was implemented in 1956 as a compromise. Non-Malay schools have been referred to as National-type schools, while Malay schools have been referred to as National Schools. The report was adopted and enacted as the Education Ordinance of 1956, which became the foundation of the education policy for independent Malaya.

The Tamil schools accepted government sponsorship after independence in 1957 and became the National Type Tamil Schools. The government is responsible for the funding, teacher training, and the development of school curriculum, textbooks, teachers training etc. From here has started Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) in vernacular schools in Malaysia.

Literature Review

Tupas and Lorente (2011) conducted a study in the Philippine where they described although the bilingual approach was administered in education; the students were congenial with Filipino as the national language to enhance the learning process. Moreover, they can express their identity as a nation through their mother tongue. Besides, the implementation of the MTB-MLE at the primary school level has encouraged mother tongue acquisition since 2009. At the same time the English language plays an important role as an international language in the Philippines (Smolicz & Nical, 1997). According to Adriano, Franco & Estrella (2021), although the majority of teachers, parents, and students have a favourable attitude toward the implementation of the MTB-MLE policy, they still continue to favour the use of English as a medium of education. While good perceptions have led to the adoption and proper execution of the MTB-MLE policy, convincing teachers, parents, and students of the benefits of the language policy on students’ literacy and educational quality remains a struggle.

In a multi-ethnic society like Malaysia, it is not only necessary but also crucial to foster a sense of national unity among its citizens (David & Tien, 2008). Following Malaysia’s independence in 1957, numerous initiatives were implemented to elevate BM’s status as the national language, recognising it as an immediate symbol of national identity (patriotism) and unity among Malaysians (Kasuma, Hamid & Akhiar, 2020). The National Education Policy (NEP) and the National Language Policy (NLP) are two significant policies that have adopted in an attempt to develop a culture of unity and nationalism in Malaysian schools through a common curriculum. Due to the exposure to BM in schools starting at the age of seven, the NLP has positively generated a sense of national identification among the youths (David & Tien, 2008).



A total of 8 participants were purposively selected and they consented to participate in this study. They were a mix group namely primary school teachers (2), secondary school teacher (2), IPGM lecturer (1), NGO representatives (2) and Alumni of Tamil School (1). The researcher sought to find out the perceptions of these participants on the role of vernacular school in building national integration among the students. Given the relatively small sample of participants involved, we do not intend to generalise our findings to other vernacular school students or to other minority language contexts in Malaysia.


The purposive sampling method was used for data collection. The potential participants were contacted through personal contact by the researcher. Eight participants were invited to participate in the semi-structured interviews. After the interviews, a focus group discussion was further conducted with 4 of the participants. The questions in the interviews and focus group discussion centred on the role of vernacular schools in building national integration in Malaysia. The interviews were conducted face to face, online and were audio-recorded and the focus group discussion was conducted face to face. The interviews, lasting between 15 and 20 minutes. The focus group discussion lasted for 70 minutes.


This section unveils the findings obtained by the researchers which provide diverse views from different perspectives on the roles of vernacular schools in building national integration.

Vernacular schools bridge the socio-economic gap for equal prosperity. According to Dewey (1966), democratization of education means opportunities provided for everyone to succeed in education as well as to use education as a key tool to succeed and enjoy a better quality of life. This indicates that education plays an indispensable role in deciding one’s access to a prosperous life with good socioeconomic status. From this socio-economic perspective the researchers are able to explore two important aspects namely educational achievement and closing of the socio-economic gaps.

Excerpt 1

When we talk about national integration sometimes we can’t see the direct effect There may also be indirect effects For example, I look at it from a socio -economic point of view. If a child is unable to acquire early education when there is lack of any language other than the mother tongue, then he/she will be left behind in education. This will cause a gap in differences between Indians students and other races. This gap will divide the races in Malaysia. For an example, I acquire my primary education in a Tamil school. . When I entered secondary school I was able to maintain my academic achievement until the end of SPM. Then I continue my study at a tertiary level and successfully obtained a degree in engineering. Now I am working with many Malays and Chinese who are my friends. For me there is no problem. We are very close. This is real integration.

From this excerpt, we understand that pupils at primary level can acquire their primary education at least to a satisfactory level. This is because the national passing rate of NTTS in the Primary School Assessment Test – UPSR (until 2019) was about 60%. Out of 5 subjects namely Bahasa Malaysia (Malay), English, Tamil, Science and Mathematics, 3 subjects use Tamil as MOI (except for schools that are following the DLP program). So students who could study these subjects in Tamil could understand better the conceptual subjects like Mathematics and Science and pass UPSR. If they had studied these subjects in a language they did not understand then their achievement would have been poor. This scenario was in line with UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report) which revealed that 40% of the global population did not get access to education in a language they understood. This immediately evokes a question: What will happen if students study in a language they don’t understand? Eventually, their academic performance will deteriorate and they may not have access to good prospects in their lives.

Apart from that, future of employment for underperforming pupils will fall in the lower income group. This will create a socio-economic barrier among the individuals. Alongside, in our multiracial context, each student represents its race individually. This means, if they are left behind academically, it will be tough to close the gap of socioeconomic differences between races. What is more hazardous is, the economic disparity gap will risk the unity among races. Hence, the above arguments clearly indicate that the existence of vernacular schools is vital to preserve the socioeconomic status in our multiracial country which is of great concern to our government.

Excerpt 2

The other participant expressed his idea about the top-down language policy being implemented by the government. The respondent disclosed that;

Bahasa Malaysia is our national language. We do not deny this fact. Comparatively the proficiency of Bahasa Malaysia of Indian students in NS is better than NTTS. But we also need to understand that there are also NTTS students who score excellent grades in Malay language at the SPM level compared to Indian students or even Malay students from NS. We have to understand that the Malay language was first taught as a subject in schools starting in 1945. In the early stages the students from NTTS faced communication problems when they reached secondary school. But nowadays it is found that there is a lot of improvement in communication in the achievement of NTTS. Their use of Malay is very encouraging nowadays.

By the status Malay language that is “Bahasa Malaysia” is acknowledged and undoubtedly respected locally by all races. Malay language has been and will always be deemed as our national language which plays a pivotal role as the tool of unity. As Malaysia consists of diverse races, the Malay language has become the medium to accelerate the communication as well as to improve the bond between people of different races. Viewed historically the Malay language was taught only as a subject in schools since 1945 before being introduced as the medium of instruction in 1970. Therefore the Malay language was just like other subjects for a long period before it became the medium of instruction in educational institutions. Yet, the Malay language has been acknowledged as national language where other races have openly accepted that as a Malaysian, it is essential to learn Malay.

Apart from that, the acceptance is rooted deeply in everyone’s hearts despite the fact from which schools they are from Malay is our national language Therefore, it is important to learn it; and is taught in all vernacular schools. Thus, without doubt, it is clear that the status of the Malay language as the national language is unshakable and its acceptance is deeply rooted.

Excerpt 3

One of the respondent has stated as follow;

Various parties an play important role in strengthening the Malay language in NTTS. Many programs are run by the schools, NGOs and also Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Recently, the DBP conducted many programs such as training for Malay language teachers, competitions for students who are non-native speakers and so on. We always emphasize the importance of the Malay language and empower the Malay language by following the national agenda

The mastery of the Malay language and the achievements of Tamil school students have been commendable lately. Based on the views of the respondent, various efforts were made by schools and NGOs to strengthen the Malay language. Apart from that, the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka also held many activities such as competitions for students and training programmes for SJKT teachers to strengthen their Malay language. So it cannot be said that SJKT students do not have a command of the Malay language. When we close the gap in the mastery of the Malay language, then the gap of national integration can be reduced. So vernacular schools have the potential to further strengthen national integration rather than become a barrier for national integration.

Excerpt 4

The respondent also reveal that learning subjects such as History and Morals in their mother tongue can deepen the students’ understanding of the history and culture of other races in Malaysia. This can be seen from the excerpt of respondent 4 as given follows:

National integration can be maintained when one understands the history and culture of a race in greater depth. If students learn history and culture in their mother tongue then their understanding of their history and culture is also deeper. So when students get to know more deeply about the culture of others, then they can also understand them and respect their culture and beliefs. NTTS students study about the multi-racial cultures in Malaysia in History and Moral subjects as well as in other subjects in primary schools. This knowledge , can help them to strengthen inter-racial friendship and national integration can be further strengthened.

From the above excerpt it can be established that teaching history in the mother tongue will improve the students’ knowledge about Malaysia as well as instil a profound sense of patriotism. The importance of teaching history in the mother tongue in will enhance the student’s belonging to his/her mother land. Besides that, the subject becomes easier to understand when taught in the mother tongue. Generally, history is learnt by students from Standard 4 in primary schools and comprises of concepts like obedience to the King, country, leaders unity, national pride and harmony. This subject has a high potential to cultivate the concepts of unity among the students. In this case, based on the respondent, it is highly believed that national integration can be fostered through history if it is taught in their mother tongue as it can help to the understand the contents and improve patriotism for country. In order to achieve patriotism every child needs to understand the country’s history and share common aspirations for the future. To establishing a true national identity also requires a strong sense of inclusiveness. Thus, the mother tongue’s role in studying the nation’s history is inevitably essential.

Excerpt 5

One of the respondents had reported that despite the role of vernacular schools, the national curriculum actually fosters the concept of integration in all types of schools. The excerpt is given below:

In fact in the early stages of the establishment of Tamil schools, the curriculum used was from the India. But after independence we have used our own curriculum. The curriculum used for Tamil schools is not a separate one. Both the NS or NTTC/S, use the same national curriculum; The national curriculum is the blue print of our education system. So how can this national curriculum hinder national integration among vernacular school students when all schools in Malaysia use and follow this curriculum. So we can say that in fact these vernacular schools are not an obstacle to national integration.

The views indicate that vernacular curriculum is the model of the national curriculum. Taking the National Development Plan as reference, the curriculum was formulated in line with the National Education Objectives and the national education philosophy. Hence, it cannot be stated that the vernacular curriculum does not conform to national integration or racial unity.

Excerpt 6

National integration is something unique. It is individually accepted; adopted and assimilated with other cultures without leaving or changing ones original culture. This means, if a person does not have the opportunity to learn the language and culture due to the closure of the vernacular school then they will lose their identity one day. If they lose their identity there is no point in practicing national integration. So I think we are on the right track and vernacular schools have the potential to increase the level of national integration in our country.

The most significant views expressed by the respondent indicate that the development of national integration should enhance one’s deep-rooted ethnic values. Language is one of the ethnic values carried on for generations and there’s an unbreakable bond with culture and community. The textbooks of subjects like history and moral education contain enormous multi-cultural element that in have been speculated to be an influential learning material. It is used as primary source of teaching and learning materials and allows students to interact inside and outside the classroom. As stated by Chao (2011), the cultural content in textbooks is “hidden curriculum” that has great effect consciously or unconsciously in transmitting cultural knowledge. When the contents in the textbooks are taught in one’s mother tongue, it undoubtedly sows deep nationalistic feelings. Through this one’s ethnic values will be retained and is the fundamental part of building national integration which is to allow every child hold on to its values such as language and culture while encouraging patriotism for the country.

These are the findings that have been obtained in line with this research to reveal how national integration is captured via vernacular schools.


The perceptions of the participants strongly correlate to the notion that vernacular schools are not to be considered as a primary cause for any perceived issues with national integration. Vernacular schools do limit the opportunities for interaction among the peers of different ethnic groups. However, there is no conclusive evidence to support the view that, these limitations are to be blamed for any issue on national integration. Noting that the institutionalised ethno centric system is the elephant in the room.

Contrary to the assertions, implementation of vernacular schools have the potential to strengthen national integration. Children at primary level learn better in their mother tongue in, the long run, these vernacular schools are able to reduce socio-economic disparities, enhance the essence of unity through the mother tongue so that students can understand better the concepts of other cultures and finally the teaching and learning activities based on the national curriculum can be monitored systematically.

The concept of national integration requires a broad-based understanding. Any simplistic view with an intention to stifle the young minds will compromise the vast benefits of learning in their mother tongue to accept and integrate the language and culture of others without sacrificing their cultural and linguistic identities. In our multi-ethnic environment vernacular schools should be part of of Keluarga Malaysia, which prides over our languages, religions and cultures.


I would like to thank Mr. K. Arumugam, who has edited the content of this article, and Ms. Puungkodi Paramasivam who helped me to transcribe the data collected. I also like to thank all the participants who participated in this study and the Tamil Foundation of Malaysia for their support.


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