Wed, December 08, 2021


Documenting the evolution of the Chinese school in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR - Every now and again, Chinese language schools in Malaysia are embroiled in controversies. Some people claim these schools are “a source of disunity” while others clamour for their closure, says Dr Fong Chan Onn, a former deputy education mi

Uneasy that vernacular schools are still misunderstood even after almost 59 years of independence, Dr Fong, 72, felt strongly about setting things right.
Since much has been written about the matter – he himself has contributed many research papers and books on applied economics and education – Dr Fong contemplated addressing the issue in a different way.
“I thought the best way to portray the history, development and current status of Chinese schools is through a photographic form. Hopefully, not only the Chinese community but all Malaysians will then understand and appreciate the role that Chinese schools have played in the development of multi-ethnic Malaysia,” he says.
And that is how he came to produce the photo book "The Malaysian Chinese Primary School – A Century Of Toil And Dedication".
Possibly the first photo journal of its kind, the book documents the challenging journey Chinese schools have had, from their humble origins in clan houses, temples and churches to the present day.
Speaking to Star2 exclusively after the book’s launch earlier in the month, Dr Fong explains his interest in the matter.
“My stint in the education ministry (1990-1999) allowed me to understand the intricacies of the schooling system. But what motivated me were the debates about the role of vernacular schools,” says Dr Fong, who is now chairman of Enterprise Asia, an NGO that develops entrepreneurship in Asia. He retired as human resources minister in 2008 and as MP (for Alor Gajah, Malacca) in 2003.
There were, for instance, the debates about the Education Act 1961 and Clause 21(2), which empowered the education minister to convert a national-type school (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan) to a national school.
“That was a period when the Chinese community lived with a great deal of anxiety,” he says, recalling the troubling sense of uncertainty, adding that only after the clause was removed did vernacular schools become “modernised and confident”.
It was Prime Minister Najib Razak who removed the controversial clause during his tenure as education minister in 1996.
Dr Fong adds: “Since the implementation of the new Education Act 1996, Chinese schools have been operating in a more liberal environment. They receive more financial aid and more schools have been built.”
Have camera, will travelDr Fong picked up photography after he retired, though he says that he had been interested in it even as a young boy. He is a self-taught pixman, reading books on photography and researching the subject on his own.
In mid-2014, after the idea for the book had been mooted, he began planning for it, beginning with buying camera equipment and getting approval from the Education Ministry to visit schools. He asked the ministry for guidance and read school magazines before choosing which schools to visit. He wanted to capture a “representative sample of schools with interesting characters”. Like schools located in village houses in Sabah and Sarawak, for instance; surprisingly, they are still around after some 50 years.
Then, between January and October last year, Dr Fong travelled around Malaysia to photograph 150 of the country’s 1,300 Chinese schools.
He toured all sorts of different areas, from urban and semi-urban to remote, alone, or sometimes with just one or two assistants to help him lug the heavy camera equipment – “It was a physically demanding job,” Dr Fong recalls. If he was not satisfied with the results, he would return to a school for a second or even third time to get the shots he wanted.
Schools evolvingFriends lent him cars and a headmaster hired a boat for him when he wanted to visit two schools with only water access, SJKC Aik Hua at Pasir Hitam and SJKC Poay Chee, both situated in the estuary of Sungai Kuala Sepetang in Perak.
At SJKC Poay Chee in Kuala Sangga, a Chinese fishing village on an island that is a 30-minute boat ride from Kuala Sepetang, teachers live in the school itself, and even the headmaster sleeps in his office during the week, only travelling to his home in Taiping, Perak, on weekends.
Since they began over 100 years ago, Chinese schools have “adapted to the Malaysian environment”, says Dr Fong, and their pupil profile is evolving.
“Sometimes when you enter a classroom that doesn’t have Chinese characters or red lanterns, you might not even realise it’s a Chinese school because the pupil profile is so mixed, with many Malay and Indian pupils. In Sabah and Sarawak, there are many Iban, Dayak and Kadazan pupils,” he says.
“In schools in outlying areas, there were sometimes more non-Chinese pupils than Chinese. In KL, in downtown Sentul and Pudu, non-Chinese pupils comprise 20 per cent of the student body, and in Setapak, 40 per cent. All these pupils are interacting with each other – it’s very cosmopolitan,” he says, adding that this is a wonderful opportunity for children to interact with and understand each other’s cultures.
Meanwhile, the Chinese community remains a strong supporter of Chinese schools; often, when there are fund-raising exercises in towns or new villages, all donate generously.
Asked about his favourite photos in the book, he flips to a page showing a lion dance troupe of Kadazan pupils at SJKC Bong Hwa in Bongawan, Papar, Sabah.
“The headmistress was very innovative in making a lion head and the pupils enjoyed the performance,” he recalls.
There is a hilltop school, SJKC Ming Wok, in Sarawak with beautiful views of Sungai Ngemah, a tributary of Sungai Rajang.
Then there is “the isolated and under-enrolled school”, SJKC Bukit Fraser, Hulu Selangor, which has only one pupil, two teachers and a headmistress. The pupil enjoys special treatment because without him, “the school would perhaps be closed and the teachers assigned to other schools”, Dr Fong laughs.
In the opposite scenario, there is the “massively overcrowded” SJKC Yak Chee in Puchong, Selangor, with an overwhelming enrolment of 4,000 students in two sessions. Every day, 2,000 afternoon session students wait in the school hall. At 1pm, the morning session pupils leave the school and only then can the afternoon session students enter their classes, he says.
“Imagine the logistics! It’s a military precision kind of activity,” he says with a laugh, referring to how teachers have to coordinate the pupils exiting and entering the classrooms.
Dr Fong shares other memories of his travels, like chancing upon a Chinese teacher lifting an Indian pupil so that he could reach the top of the blackboard to write at SJKC Eng Chuan, Penang. She felt embarrassed when he wanted to photograph the moment but he managed to coax her to do it again for his camera.
Still going strongIn photographing schoolchildren, he learnt one thing: “You can never pose them. You have to wait until they don’t feel your presence. It’s a time consuming job,” says Dr Fong, who spent two to three hours at least in each school.
Two special photos bookend the pages of "The Malaysian Chinese Primary School – A Century Of Toil And Dedication": The first photo, an archival one, features the first documented Chinese classes in the Ng Fook Thong temple in Penang, which started in 1819. Today, the temple still remains as a place of worship. The last photo is of a sunrise at SKJC Khoon Aik in Kangar, Perlis. To Dr Fong, this photograph “symbolises a good beginning for Chinese schools in the future of Malaysia”.
“I’m confident that Chinese schools will continue to play a very important role in the evolution of multi-ethnic Malaysia. Chinese schools can make the country much more competitive because we can build up the trilingual abilities of the pupils.”

Published : July 26, 2016

By : Majorie Chiew The Star