ANALYSIS The issue of Chinese education has always been a hot-button issue to any general election and MCA, the party that claims to "live and die on Chinese schools", will either be the biggest loser or winner - depending on how the issue is dealt with.

The latest round of controversy was sparked by Dong Zong, the umbrella body of all Chinese school boards of directors, when it claimed that there was a deal struck between MCA and the government not to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC).

The charge came after the Chinese community failed to make any inroad in the 20-year application to construct a new independent Chinese high school in Kuantan despite a 5,000-strong rally in support of the school being held in the coastal city on May 20.

dong zong chinese school 325 protest 250312UEC is a standard examination taken by all students in independent Chinese high schools. It is conducted by Dong Zong and recognised by major universities worldwide - except the Malaysian government.

Furnishing a letter signed by a senior Education Ministry officer, Dong Zong claimed the deal was reached when Section 21(2) of the Education Act 1961 was abolished in 1995. The section empowered the education minister to convert Chinese and Tamil primary schools to national schools.

In the wake of the revelation, MCA leaders scrambled to do damage control. MCA Youth chief and Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong argued that the letter did not represent the ministry's stance. Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who was the education minister in 1995, backed Wee and claime that no such deal ever existed.

But to MCA's chagrin, Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin did not toe the BN line.

He maintained that the government would not review the status quo on Chinese independent schools - including approval for new schools - strengthening the perception that MCA was subservient to its Umno 'taiko' (big brother) in policy making.

Muhyiddin's U-turn

Two days after, MCA breathed a sigh of relief when Muhyiddin made a U-turn, announcing that the government has found a way to construct a new independent Chinese high school in Kuantan.

The Chinese party then proceeded to make a triumphant announcement on June 20, promising that approval for the new school would be granted within two weeks, and thereby defusing a potential political time bomb.

At the same time, MCA claimed credit for another major breakthrough in the 193-year Chinese education struggle in Malaysia - the government approval for Southern College, the first institution of higher education established by the Chinese Malaysian community, to be upgraded to university college status.

NONELocated in Skudai, Johor, Southern College is the first and only non-profit Chinese community college to obtain the status, and is seen as ‘a dream come true' for the community that has been struggling to establish an all-round Chinese education system - from primary to tertiary education - complementing the existing 1,280 Chinese primary schools and 60 independent Chinese high schools.

Some see the approval as a calculated move to allay the brewing anti-establishment sentiment among the Chinese community in the southern state that has traditionally been with the BN, which was becoming evident from the sizable support given to the opposition's political ceramah and fund-raising dinners.

Johor is MCA's last fortress. The party holds seven of its 15 parliamentary seats and 12 of the 35 state seats in Johor - losing them will spell the end of the 63-year-old party.

However, are these two 'achievements', widely and closely reported by the Chinese dailies over the past few weeks, enough for MCA to revive its ebbing support among Chinese voters?

Chinese voters has changed

"The practice of granting approvals for new Chinese schools and education allocations before general elections was quite effective in the 70s and 80s, but the effect has been decreasing over the years," said Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall chief executive officer Tang Ah Chai.

"The mindset of Chinese voters has changed. They no longer feel thankful to the government for the allocations to Chinese schools as they believe the funds are from taxpayers' money and the government is only performing its role as the ‘manager and distributor' of the funds."

malaysiakini and merdekareview subscription plan lauching 200911 tan ah chaiTang (right), who is also a seasoned Chinese education activist, pointed out that MCA's aims have always been political expediency, working on the issue of new Chinese schools on a case-by-case basis instead of seeking a permanent solution.

"The problem still persists. Even if the new independent Chinese high school in Kuantan is approved, it cannot pave the way for more high schools to be built.

"There is still no official policy that allows Chinese primary schools to be built based on the community's need. Indeed, the government policy on Chinese education has not changed much since 1960s," Tang said when contacted yesterday.

For many Chinese Malaysians, memories of how the Malaysian Chinese Organisations Election Appeals Committee or Suqiu - a movement to pressure the government to adopt various political reforms prior to the 1999 general election - was manipulated by the then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad are still fresh.

Prior to the election, Mahathir, who was beleaguered by the Reformasi movement, said the government accepted in principle the 83 demands raised by Suqiu, but he reversed his tune after BN won the election on the back of strong Chinese support.

Mahathir went on to liken Suqiu to communists and the Al-Ma'unah movement, which allegedly sought to overthrow the government through violence means.

Pakatan's vague stand

Meanwhile, MCA attempted to turn the tables on Pakatan Rakyat.

While defending the party's track record, MCA challenged the opposition coalition to clearly state its policy on Chinese education in its manifesto, Buku Jingga or the Orange Book.

"Is he (Pakatan leader Anwar Ibrahim) going to build more Chinese primary schools and independent Chinese high schools? Will he upgrade the existing schools and institutionalise allocations to all Chinese schools?

"He must make it clear so that the Chinese community can make a comparison between BN and the opposition," MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek was quoted as saying by MCA-owned The Star on Monday.

NONEChua has a point for Pakatan has not elaborated on its education policy despite making repeated assurances that Chinese schools would be given fair treatment.

It appears more ambiguous when compared with other promises made by Anwar, such as the abolition of the National Higher Education Corporation Fund (PTPTN), fuel price cut, cash handouts and the abolition of highway tolls.

"MCA's demand is reasonable. Pakatan should state specific policies on Chinese education in its manifesto. It should have a clear stand," said Tan.

The answer to Pakatan's political dilemma in mother-tongue education policy may be found in history: the policy on language was one of the main reasons for the collapse of Socialist Front in 1965 when its component parties Party Rakyat Malaysia and the Labour Party of Malaya could not agree on a common language policy.

In addition, the recognition of mother-tongue education as a basic human right still faces resistance from Malay nationalist groups and intellectuals such as Chandra Muzaffar, who viewed the vernacular education system as an obstacle to national unity.

As such, it is not be surprising that Pakatan, which is still fighting an uphill battle to convince the more conservative Malay voters of its economic policies, chooses to leave the controversial issue as it is.

By leaving the issue vague, Pakatan hopes not to spook the Malay voters while cashing in on non-Malays' goodwill in the upcoming general election.
“The Chinese community is more tolerant towards Pakatan because it has not proven itself at the federal level, but BN has been there for over 50 years, so no more excuses,” said Tang.