Review of Chinese Schools in Peninsular Malaysia

Lee Ting Hui, Chinese Schools in Peninsular Malaysia: The Struggle for Survival

Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011. Pp. xv, 282; figures, tables, abbreviations, glossary, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Christine Chan.

As its title suggests, Lee Ting Hui’s book treats the ways in which Chinese schools in Peninsular Malaysia managed to survive from 1786 to 2003. Its approach is to consider how the British, Japanese and post-independence Malaysian governments posed challenges to Chinese schools and how the latter responded to those challenges (xiii).

Chinese Schools in Peninsular Malaysia is arranged chronologically into seven chapters, with the first chapter providing an overview of the period from 1786-1941, beginning with the establishment of Chinese schools with the onset of Chinese migration to Malaya. Lee argues, on the basis of previous research (2006), that Chinese schools managed steadily to increase in number and to remain unaffected by British policy. The second chapter covers developments from the onset of Japanese occupation in 1941/1942 until Malaya achieved self-government in 1955. During the Japanese Occupation, Chinese schools were closed; they were only revived with the return of the British in 1945. The post-war period was also the time when Chinese educational organizations such as the United Chinese School Teachers’ Association and the United Chinese School Committees’ Association, which resurface constantly later in the narrative as the main defenders of Chinese education, were founded.

Chapter Three covers the period between 1956 and 1969. The former year saw the governing United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) declare that they would work towards an “ultimate objective” in education—“to use the Malay language as the main medium of instruction in all schools”.  Lee notes that this objective “still holds today” (83). The latter year brought the 13 May racial riots between Malays and Chinese. Lee documents the decision for some Chinese-medium schools to switch to using English as the medium of instruction, while others became independent by refusing any aid from the government. Chapter Four covers developments during the 1970s, while Chapter Five treats 1980s.  Each of these decades saw the government push towards its “ultimate objective” in education, resulting in severe difficulties for Chinese education. Some challenges were successfully overcome. For example, there was a campaign to revive the independent Chinese secondary schools in the 1970s.  Others were not: the Malaysian government’s “Operation Lalang” (weeding) in the 1980s saw the arrest of 106 persons under the Internal Security Act, among whom were certain Chinese politicians and educationists.

Chapter Six of Chinese Schools in Peninsular Malaysia discusses developments from the 1990s to 2003, when Mahathir Mohamad retired from his position as prime minister of Malaysia. This period, according to Lee, was “eventful” because Mahathir’s Vision 2020, a nation-building ideal, “brought both joy and disappointment to the Chinese community” (214), by threatening to end the use of Chinese to teach mathematics and science in National-type Chinese schools, but at the same time giving the Chinese community the chance to set up new colleges. Chapter Seven concludes the book by summarizing the various challenges posed by the government to Chinese schools, noting their responses to these challenges, and briefly examining the problems faced by the schools from 2004 to early 2009.

Lee Ting Hui’s latest book is a useful source of information on the history of Chinese schools in Peninsular Malaysia, based on detailed primary research in official annual reports on education and the publications of teachers’ or school committees’ associations. The book covers a wide range of issues concerning Chinese education, including funding, expenditure, language, staffing, school populations and school buildings.  It can and will prove valuable for anyone interested in the topic of Chinese education in Malaysia. Useful background information accompanying the details from government reports and explaining responses from the Chinese community is also provided. For example, political and social developments in China such as the 1911 Sun Yat Sen Revolution or Malaysian developments like the 1969 racial riots between Malays and Chinese are incorporated into the story that Lee tells in Chinese Schools in Peninsular Malaysia.

However, several weaknesses will diminish the book’s overall impact. For one, this book might be difficult for a non-Chinese-literate person to read, because of its constant use of Hanyu Pinyin names. For example, who would know that the head of the Nanyang Overseas Chinese General Association for the Relief of Refugees in the Fatherland, whom Lee names as Chen Jia Geng (29, 50), was actually Tan Kah Kee, unless the reader were familiar with the history of overseas Chinese, or bothered to flip to the glossary to find the more commonly used name (249)? Or that Jiang Jie Shi is Chiang Kai Shek, to name another example (25, 252). Several typographical errors and awkwardly expressed headings (e.g. “A parting of the ways for the MCA and Chinese educationists, an event of misfortune for Chinese education”, 99) point to the need for better proof-reading and editing of this book by ISEAS’s publishing unit. On a side (but still related) note, there exist library copies of this book that have not only Lee’s name on the cover but also that of a Malaysian educationist, Mok Soon Sang, as co-author.  This occurrence is somewhat puzzling to me.

A more serious problem appears to be the lack of attempts to explain certain observations made by the author (or authors?). Although full of detail and careful primary research, Chinese Schools in Peninsular Malaysia lapses at times into academic agnosticism. For example, in 1948, a Ten-Year Education Plan was implemented which sought to increase the amount of English language instruction in schools and gave equal status to the Chinese, Malay and Tamil languages in Singapore. Lee compares this to the earlier Cheeseman Plan, which had been accepted by the British in line with the Malayan Union but was strongly opposed by UMNO.  The latter could not accept equal status for all four language streams of primary education. Lee seems to express surprise that, unlike the Cheeseman Plan, the Malay community did not oppose the Ten-Year Education Plan in Singapore. He concludes that “the reason for this is unfathomable” (51), but surely the area of the application of the plans (the Cheeseman Plan for the whole of Malaya, but the Ten-Year Education Plan for Singapore) and the contexts in which they were put forward make this difference quite fathomable. (The Cheeseman Plan was proposed alongside the Malayan Union Plan of 1946, which Malays opposed; it was thus not the contents of the Cheeseman Plan that they were against but rather what the plan represented in their eyes.)  Lee’s surprise at the lack of opposition to certain policies is also expressed elsewhere.  For example, he finds it “strange” that a government educational report that would affect Chinese primary schools was not opposed by the Chinese community, but instead attacked by UMNO (53). This reaction is possibly due to Lee’s approach of looking at government policy and the acceptance and/or rejection by the Malay and Chinese communities in broad strokes; more could be said about why there were varying responses at different times instead of merely dismissing them as “strange” or “unfathomable”.

This volume is a valuable study of the history of Chinese schools in Peninsular Malaysia over the decades. Although it focuses on the challenges posed by successive governments – the colonial government in the post-war period tried to introduce English-language instruction, while the Malay-dominated government in the post-independence period tried to dominate the education scene by achieving the “ultimate objective” of using Malay as the main language in all schools – it does not simply portray the Chinese community as victims reacting to problems.  Much is said about the community’s losses, such as the conversion of Chinese schools to National-type schools, which used English as their medium of instruction and later used Malay. At the same time, the Chinese community’s agency is also shown in the ways in which it had negotiated and protested various policies, adapted to changes (Penang’s Zhong Ling High School, or Chung Ling, is the classic example of how a Chinese school transformed itself into a near- English school in 1956.), and implemented strategies to advance their interests (such as capitalizing on ties to Chinese political parties).

The story of how the Chinese minority in Malaysia managed to preserve much of its identity through Chinese education is a remarkable one, especially when one compares the situation in Malaysia with those of her neighbours, especially in the post-independence period.

In Singapore, which Lee’s book covers for the years before the island’s separation from the peninsula in 1965, there are no longer any Chinese-language-medium schools, whether independent or government-aided. Instead, all vernacular schools were made to use English as their language of instruction, and students had to learn Mandarin, Malay or Tamil as their second language, depending on which ethnic group they fell into. In 1980, several formerly Chinese-medium secondary schools came under the Special Assistance Plan (SAP), which allowed them to teach both English and Mandarin as first languages and to promote Chinese culture. Nevertheless, these schools, while preserving their Chinese names and having enrollments of predominantly Chinese students (since all students in SAP schools have to learn Chinese and be rather proficient at it before enrolling), still teach all other subjects in English. The Singapore government’s nation-building efforts are reflected in the purposeful choice of English, a language that does not belong to any of its ethnic groups, to bridge the communication gap that existed at the time of the nation’s founding. A second reason is economic, since English is an international language and will aid Singaporeans in connecting with the rest of the world in tourism, commerce and so on. Also in 1980, the first overseas Chinese university, Nanyang University ceased to exist and was merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore, thus ending any Chinese-language higher education in Singapore. Whether the move was political, due to a fear of Chinese political activism and communism, or practical, due to the lack of employability of its graduates, it is clear that Chinese-medium schools were not desired by the authorities in post-independence Singapore.

From the point of view of Chinese educationists or advocates of the need to uphold a distinct Chinese identity, the situation in Indonesia was even bleaker. Any debate over whether Chinese in Indonesia should assimilate into the wider indigenous Indonesian community or integrate as a minority while keeping their customs and traditions ended with the emergence of Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998), which carried out “forced assimilation”. Indonesian Chinese citizens were made to change their names, the use of the Chinese language was banned in public, and Chinese schools were closed down. It is only in recent years, after the fall of the Suharto regime, that Chineseness has re-entered the Indonesian public sphere, with Chinese-language schools being set up and the widespread celebration of festivals such as the Lunar New Year.

However, one might point out that it was more successful nation-building attempts in Indonesia and Singapore that led to the demise of their Chinese schools, and conversely, that the failure of the Malaysians to achieve agreement on the type of nation they want to build has resulted in the survival of their Chinese schools (since they struggle to preserve their distinct Chinese identity vis-à-vis the Malay majority). During the age of the strong nation-state, the successful story of survival that Lee presents thus has to be seriously questioned. Despite enabling the Chinese community to preserve its ethnic identity, Chinese schools also alienated the community that they served from jobs and higher educational opportunities in Malaysia. Granting that this is not only because of Chinese schools but also because of the way that Malaysian society has been structured, one can nevertheless but wonder how different things could have turned out in Malaysia if Chinese schools had gone into decline and the gap between the various races had lessened.

The situation is likely to be different in this post-nation-building era. There appear to be greater overseas job and educational opportunities for Malaysians who attend Chinese schools, especially if they are from independent Chinese schools that teach both English and Chinese and sometimes even Malay. The setting up of a few Chinese colleges in Malaysia in recent years, which Lee briefly documents in the last chapter, also points to the increase in higher education options within Malaysia for the Chinese-educated community. An even more successful story of the Chinese schools in Malaysia might soon emerge with the rise of the People’s Republic of China and the desire of neighbouring nations to capitalize on it.

Christine Chan Li Hui has recently submitted an honours thesis entitled “TK-SD Kuncup Melati: An Indonesian Chinese Institution’s Adaptation, 1950-2010” to the history department of the National University of Singapore, in which she will begin study toward a master’s degree later this year.


Lee Ting Hui. Chinese Schools in British Malaya: Policies and Politics.  Singapore: South Seas Society, 2006.

About Christine Chan, Guest Contributor