This is why we are gathered here to discuss a new deal for Indian mother-tongue education in the country just as there is ongoing debate on a new deal for Chinese education for the next five years, in view of the long-standing refusal of the Barisan Nasional government to integrate them into the mainstream of the national education policy and system by giving fair and equitable treatment to all schools in all aspects, whether financial, physical or other educational infrastructure support.
There should be a national consensus first among the Malaysian Indians as to the contents and details of the new deal for Indian mother-tongue education and it is hoped that the deliberations of this conference can be the first step towards the development of such a consensus.
DAP MP for Siputeh, Sdri. Teresa Koh, who is here with us together with the DAP MP for Batu Gajah, Sdri. Fong Poh Kuan, has agreed to be the DAP Parliamentary spokesperson on Tamil education issues in the Dewan Rakyat, until such time as an Indian MP from DAP could be elected.
Tamil and Chinese primary schools face many common problems of getting full government recognition of their rightful place in the mainstream of the national education system, but they also have different problems to contend with, such as the different degree of community support for mother-tongue education.
Many middle and upper-middle class Indian Malaysians, for instance, hold the view that Tamil schools are practically useless as students in Tamil schools do not benefit either educationally or economically - and worse, Tamil schools have become a hotbed for nurturing and sustaining vices and gangsterism. This has led to calls for the closure of Tamil primary schools - the most recent call coming from a former top MIC national leader.
Data and statistics about the general backwardness of Tamil primary schools are quite dismal - for instance, MIC President Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu has himself said that “some schools look worse than refugee camps”, with rickety or broken chairs and tables, toilets in a horrendous state of disrepair, and most do not have libraries and staff rooms let alone science and computer laboratories.
The National Union of Tamil School Teachers Malaysia (NUTSTM) has claimed that about 70% of the Tamil schools in the country are without basic school amenities.
The number of Indian children not enrolled in schools has the ratio of 12:1 which is double the national ratio of 26:1. Seventy per cent of Indian children do not go to pre-school.
Tamil primary schools are still predominantly in the rubber estates. Only 30 per cent of the 527 Tamil primary schools in the country are in urban areas, with Perak having the most schools with 138 in the state, followed by Selangor 98, Johore 70, Negri Sembilan 61, Kedah 58, Pahang 36, Penang 28, Malacca 21, Kuala Lumpur 15, Kelantan and Perlis with one each.
More than 60% of the schools have an enrolment of fewer than 200 pupils. There are schools with 20 pupils and five teachers.
Total enrolment in Tamil primary schools have fallen from 104,632 in 1993 to 94,907 in 2,000.
In 1999, only 44.5% of Tamil school pupils passed the Bahasa Malaysia paper as compared to 64.3% for Chinese primary schools and 87.5% for national primary schools. This pattern was reflected in all other subjects, and it is repeated every year - with the gulf continuing to grow between the attainments of pupils in Tamil primary schools and other streams of primary schools.
As a counter to the argument that Tamil primary schools are the cause of the community’s socio-economic backwardness, it has been pointed out that Indian pupils are usually surpassed by their peers of other races, not only on a comparative basis between Tamil primary schools and Chinese or national primary schools, but also in the national schools.
The comparative educational backwardness of the Indian Malaysians in the Tamil and national schools is a reflection of the marginalisation and socio-economic and political powerlessness of the Indian Malaysian community which has become the new underclass in the country.
As a poor working-class minority community, the Tamils have been pushed from rural to urban poverty, from plantation worker to factory hand and from living in an estate environment to living in a squatter area to the extent that poverty has become an inter-generational problem with poverty reproducing poverty.
Strong political will is needed to overcome the grave problem of socio-economic marginalisation and powerlessness and to make the Tamil education stream sufficiently productive by upgrading the schools and its facilities, such as imrpoving the standards of its teachers and their performance.
Another important aspect of Tamil mother-tongue education is its contribution to the multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual nation building process.
There is extensive research linking mother-tongue education to the intellectual and emotional and consequently the self-development of the child. Any attempt to stifle mother-tongue education also goes against the important global current in the new millennium to actively protect and promote enlightened ethnic and cultural diversity.
It is against this backdrop that debate and discussion of a new deal for Indian mother-tongue education in the country in the next five years under the Eighth Malaysia Plan should be conducted.
Samy Vellu has said the MIC is preparing a report on the status of Tamil schools in the country in the next 25 years for submission to the Education Minister, Tan Sri Musa Mohamad.
It is outrageous that after allowing Tamil schools to deteriorate from bad to worse in the more than two decades he had been MIC President and Cabinet Minister, Samy should be talking about the MIC’s 25-year perspective plan for Tamil schools - when he would not be around to bear any responsibility.
What Samy Vellu and the MIC leadership should focus on is to ensure that Tamil schools get a good and fair deal in the next five years under the Eighth Malaysia Plan to ensure that Tamil schools transform their image as centres of socio-economic despair and hopelessness to become stepping-stones to induct and integrate the new Indian Malaysian generation into the modern, progressive and prosperous Malaysian society.
The Indian community should focus on a new deal for Tamil education in the next five years under the Eighth Malaysia Plan instead of talking about a 25-year perspective plan suggested by MIC.