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NO Minister, Deputy Minister or Parliamentary Secretary sends their children to Tamil school," says lawyer S. Pasupathi, lamenting the poor show of confidence in Tamil education.
"And among lawyers, I can safely say that only 10 in the whole of Malaysia send their kids to Tamil school," says the 43-year-old, who is also the vice-president of the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation (EWRF), an educationrelated NGO.
This is the sorry state of Tamil education today. Forty-five years after Independence, Tamil schools remain bereft of resources, lagging behind the national and Chinese school systems.
Their failure to inspire faith has given rise to endless debate about whether or not they should be closed down.
In a recent NST online poll, 55.95 per cent of those who voted said that "Indian parents see no future in (Tamil education), preferring a more rounded national education".
Only 36.05 per cent saw Tamil education as a necessary part of the whole system.
Indeed for decades, the case for closure seemed strong. But today, there are new thinkers and movers who genuinely and vehemently believe in the merits of the system. "Just look at the UPSR results," says Pasupathi.
In national schools, he says, the pass rate for Science is 77.8 per cent. Chinese schools come in at 85.1 per cent with Tamil schools only a little behind at 82.6 per cent. The trend is similar in Mathematics and English.
"There is hope in Tamil schools. If anyone says otherwise, I can challenge them," says Pasupathi who himself attended a Tamil school in Batu Arang. "When you learn the mother tongue, you learn the cultural aspects of your race. I believe it moulds you to be a better person, a better citizen. "Six years of solid Tamil education was the best thing my parents could have done for me. It gave me confidence. "My first degree was in chemical engineering. Then I did law, and then a Masters in law. Basic Tamil education is so versatile that you can fit in anywhere." His is no idle boast. Pasupathi is one of the few middle-class parents who insist on a Tamil primary education for their children. So do S. Thiagarajan, an assistant manager in a multinational corporation, and his wife, a doctor. Their daughters attend a Tamil school in Sungai Siput, Ipoh where Thigarajan is chairman of the Parent-Teacher Association.
"Most of the teachers in a national school are Malay. I am not confident that they can motivate my children, and I don't want Indian children to be neglected." Tamil schools, he claims, are under constant scrutiny from the community which pressures them into improvement. "You don't see that with national schools. No one wants to comment on them." One of the main arguments for the closure of Tamil schools is the perceived uselessness of the language.
But many believe that Tamil can be a powerful political and economic tool. "I was told that Tamil is now the third most widely-used language on the Internet, after English and Chinese," says Kumar Menon, Senior Director (Special Projects) of Stamford College Berhad.
"And this may be wishful logic, but there is also a theory that the Tamil language is similar in structure to computer programming languages, which may be why South India has produced so many programmers." Menon also cites Anthony Giddens, the director of the London School of Economics who in his book The Third Way, said that the South Indian community is the only one on the world to have leapfrogged from an agrarian economy to a communications or knowledge-based economy without going through the industrial stage.
Yet, numerous problems persist.
"Are Tamils schools positioned in such a way as to serve the social, cultural and econonmic requirements of the Indians? The answer is clearly 'No'," says Menon.
The first step is to rid the link between Tamil schools and the colonial past. Chinese schools were developed by the community, but Tamil schools, he says, sprang from rubber estates by way of concession by the estate owner.
"To a large extent, it was an extension of the workplace, a place to hold the child until he was 10 or 11 and ready to help his parents. Its foundation is not educational." Another major obstacle is the background of Tamil school-goers.
"The only issue surrounding Tamil schools, which the Government is very well aware of, is the socio-economic situation of the children," says Pasupathi.
He says that studies conducted by the Ministry of Education on the poor performance at Tamil schools found that most of the children came from a socially and economically backward environment. This affected their health, their physical needs and naturally, their academic attainment. "See, 60 per cent of (527) Tamil schools are 'Sekolah Bantuan Modal', which means that only the teachers' salaries are paid for by the Government. Anything else - renovations, repairs and so on - goes back to the community. "And who is the community?" he demands. "They can't raise the money.
"I believe in basic education," he continues. "No computers because they're not going to add anything at the moment. First, you have to understand that C comes after B and before D." Given that most Tamil school children are unlikely to have computers at home, IT lessons would only widen the gap between the middle-class and the poor.
"My daughter has a computer, but what? You expect 40 other children to compromise and sit through computer classes because of her?" The same goes for the new MIC science and medical college.
"I don't know where the leaders have their brains. Instead of building a medical school for RM430 million, use some of that to rehabilitate Tamil schools.
"How many Tamil school children can afford a medical degree? Just give me 10 per cent of (the money) and five years, don't disturb me. I can turn them around." The main problem (with Tamil schools) says Sathish Ramachandran, a lawyer and volunteer with EWRF, is "very bad allocation of resources from the Government and the community.
"The two result in a situation where hundreds of Tamil schools don't even have blackboards, chalk, tables and chairs, and proper roofs." But lawyer Datuk Dr M. Thambirajah who has been in the field of Tamil education for over 20 years, is undaunted. Thambirajah is also founder of the Sri Murugan Centre (SMC), an education-related NGO, with 225 help centres all over the country.
Like Pasupathi, he attributes poor performance to the fact that the "children come from poorer backgrounds where there is not much emphasis on education".
"I believe that the child sitting in Tamil school has the fire, the innate ability to reach the same results as a middle-class child.
"The major difference is that Tamil school parents leave education entirely to the teachers. Urban parents take more interest in their child's education, and they have tuition and excellent bookshops to support them." It places a great deal of responsibility on teachers, but Thambirajah believes they should rise to the occasion.
"People have blamed the lack of facilities. That's fairly important but not crucial.
"As long as there is a classroom and children, the teacher and headmaster who work intently can produce better-educated children." But reality bites into the ideal. Few teachers are able to spare the kind of effort and time it takes to beat the odds. For this reason, Thambirajah believes that the role of the rural teacher should be re-defined, and he or she should be justly rewarded.
"They should take some interest in the pupils outside class, see who they mix with and help them to occupy their free time in an enjoyable way. "If they have to make home visits, then (the Government should) pay them for it. "They need proper incentives, like avenues for promotions, extra pay for extra classes and extra curricular activities. "Don't have rigid urban standards for Tamil schools - you must factor in the social problems and extra responsibility.
As with most things, money can make a huge difference. "Pay teachers to conduct additional classes in Science, Mathematics, English and Malay to make them as good as mainstream students. In Chinese schools, teachers get paid extra if they work after 2pm," says Pasupathi. "If the children stay back after school, they may not have money to buy lunch, so provide money to the canteen to give them food." Perhaps the most important contribution is the one that must come from middle-class Indians, members of the community who have the resources to make a difference.
"If they want a dignified position in society, than they have a moral obligation to help the poorer members of the community," says Pasupathi. The main thing, he says, is to "reach out and touch them in whatever way you can.
"You can never tell what effect you're going to have.
"When I was in Standard 5, this man showed me a photograph of himself standing in front of a college in Britain wearing winter clothes.
"He told me it was in Birmingham. This was in 1968. "I remember thinking to myself, 'One day I want to go there.' "Twenty years later I did, and I stood in front of what I remembered to be the same building."