The issue of vernacular schools funded by public money is a very difficult subject for me. The difficulty arises due to choices involving coercion, cohesion, unity and liberty.
For liberals, the racially divided Malaysian society is a painful reality to live in. The history and nature of our society give rise to our current predicament where most issues could be seen through racial lens, be it right or wrong. Our education and political systems reflect exactly that primitive thinking that we suffer.
Before I progress further, the importance of education must be emphasized. Liberals in general, including libertarians, place education very high in their list. Through my readings, the birth of liberalism would not be possible without the accessibility of knowledge to the masses. It is through knowledge, or education, that individuals could fully appreciate personal responsibilities, placing the individuals — the basic unit of a society — on a higher plane compared the situation in a centralize society. Liberalism at its heart is about trust in the individuals; the trust that one shall respect others’ same rights. It is trust that individuals are able to do good. Aristotle’s words describe part of that trust: “I have gained this by philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law“. It is through this trust, through personal responsibilities that one frees oneself from shackles imposed by tyrants. Without education, it is hard for any one of us to build that trust. Lack of education provides fertile ground for dictatorship.
Education is the sculpture of a society. It is a tool. The greater the education level of individuals, the greater the possibility of a creation of a freer individuals and freer individuals create freer society; liberal society. For liberals, primitive communal thinkings do not appeal to them.
The tool could be used to eliminate the primitive division we suffer. This is why the education system receives so much attention, at the very least by liberals, within our society. Liberals understand the gravity of the matter. We understand that the education system could mole a new society that would do away with outdated communal-based politics.
There are liberals that believe the promotion of multicultural society to erase the legacy of divisive communal politics from Malaysian society. They would actively promote the creation or the enhancement of multicultural society — such policies are called multiculturalism — to answer the division that could very much lead to clear expressed bigotry. Once, this appealed to me but I found a clear hint of coercion in multiculturalism. That leads to my rejection of multiculturalism. That however does not mean I reject multicultural societies. I enjoy diversity but I do not wish to have such societal characteristic to be stuff down my throat to suffocate me.
One aspect of multiculturalism through Malaysian context, at least, I seem to think so, is the rejection of vernacular system and promotion of a religiously unbiased national system with the national language as the medium. Through this, tolerance, which is a goal of multiculturalism, would be achieved. After all, inculcating tolerance in the young is easier than trying do to the same thing for an already bigoted adults.
Rejection of multiculturalism however left me grappling to answer a question: how do we overcome this primitive communal politics without multiculturalism? Could a source of bigotry be solved with coercive cohesion at the expense of liberty? Is the liberty so sacred to liberals — libertarians — worth bypassing the unity that all liberals dream of?
The questions relevant to the Malaysian education system, with all those factors in mind is this: should the vernacular system be abolished in favor of national system in the name of unity or should it be left as it is in the name of liberty, for fear of forcefully committing active assimilation against others’ will?
My status quo position until now was the abolition of the vernacular system and placing full support for the national school. Of course, the support for the national system requires qualification and few of them are meritocracy and independence from religion.
Through limited time that I had to contemplate on the matter, I have come to a conclusion that strengthens my trust in the individuals. It is a conclusion that satisfactorily breaks the dualism between coercion and cohesion, between unity and liberty; it is possible to achieve cohesion without coercion, liberty with unity.
This is how: as mentioned earlier, education is the sculpture of a society. Greater level of education introduces greater possibility of one thinking for oneself. This enables one to trust oneself, breaking away from superstitions and illogical orthodoxies, creating confident individuals that rely on the mind to move forward towards enlightenment and beyond. The ability to self-regulate transfers sovereignty from leaders or society, benevolent or malevolent, to individuals.
Higher education level increases the possibility of the birth of another liberal individual, regardless of strain, or at least, individuals that respect others’ liberties. If all liberals are allergic to the communal politics and to an extent accept that vernacular system promotes communal politics and are concerned with coercion and liberty, they would support the national system without actively depriving others of opportunity to vernacular system, assuming all else the same, assuming all qualifications that I stated earlier are incorporated. As the education level of the population goes up, there will be a point that most would like to do away with vernacular education system and thus, only one system that is supported by public money. For a liberal that values tolerance, he would try to inculcate the liberal value in his child and he would likely enroll his child in a system that offers exposure to tolerance. Between a national and a vernacular system, there is more exposure opportunity to tolerance in the former. Hence, the liberal would choose the national system over vernacular system, with all else being the same. Through this, slowly but surely, we will phrase out the public-funded vernacular system without coercion.
If my reasoning is sound, then what we need to do is to increase the quality of our education system to create a less communal politics within our society. This would mean that all we need is the patience and resilience to improve the quality of our education system and eventually, through that system, a quiet revolution for a liberal society.