Use of Mother-Tongue Language in School Functions

This is the first time I am moving a $10-cut motion, which is in fact a censure motion, on the Ministry of Education estimates, and this time specifically against the Federal Territory Education Director, Datuk Mohamed Hussein Ahmad, whose action had aggravated racial polarisation in schools by trampling on the constitutional rights and linguistic sensitivities of the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia.

On October 10, the Federal Territory Education Director issued a circular to all schools, including national-type Chinese and Tamil schools, requiring them to conduct school functions, such as weekly school assembly, speech day and sports day, in Bahasa Malaysia only.

This has led to an uproar in the Chinese community for it was another step in the erosion of the constitutional right enshrined in Article 152 of the Malaysian Constitution on the free use of teaching and learning Chinese and Tamil.

Although the Director-General of Education, Tan Sri Murad Mohammed Noor, subsequently clarified the Federal Territory Education Department’s circular by stating that headmasters not fluent in Bahasa Malaysia need only start and end their speeches in Bahasa Malaysia during official functions and school assemblies, while normal school activities could be conducted in mother-tongue languages, this is still unsatisfactory.

Does this mean that headmasters who are fluent in Bahasa Malaysia would not have constitutional right to speak in the mother tongue media of instruction, whether Chinese or Tamil, in school functions like speech day, sports day or weekly assembly?

Furthermore, this gives rise to the possibility that future promotional prospects of headmasters would depend on their preparedness to confine themselves solely to Bahasa Malaysia in school functions, as is clearly the wish of some of the authorities.

The action of the Federal Territory Education Director must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, and disciplinary action should be taken against him, for he had warned headmasters that departmental action would be taken against headmasters who disregarded his directive.

Is the Federal Territory Director of Education aware that by his insensitive action, he had gravely aggravated racial polarisation and national unity among teachers, children and the public at large?

Datuk Mohamed Hussein Ahmad argues that his directive did no prohibit vernacular schools from teaching in their own medium of instruction, and that the official language has the constitutional right to be heard in public


The nub of the issue is not the constitutional right of the official language to be heard in public, for nobody questions it, but the constitutional right of Chinese and Tamil to be used and heard in public.

If it could be established that Chinese and Tamil could not be used in school functions, then it is a very short step to demanding that Chinese and Tamil should not be used as medium of instruction and the closure of Chinese and Tamil primary schools.

It is public knowledge that this had been the demand of extremist UMNO politicians.

Only recently, the Political secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and UMNO Youth Leader, Anwar Ibrahim, put the blame for deteriorating racial polarisation on parents who send their children to Chinese and Tamil primary schools. The implication is very clear, that Chinese and Tamil primary schools are major causes of racial polarisation and national disunity, and that their closure would be necessary steps if racial polarisation is to be overcome and national unity achieved.

This explains the series of actions that had been developing in Chinese and Tamil primary schools which are aimed at the conversion of the character of Chinese and Tamil primary schools and their conversion into national primary schools as provide for by Clause 21(2) of the Education Act, 1961.

What is most disturbing in recent times is the ever-greater power of education officials to make policy decisions at variance with constitutional guarantee, as in the case of the Federal Territory Director of Education. I would tell that Federal Territory Director of Education and others that if they want to become politicians, they should resign from government service and join UMNO.

The Federal Territory case is not an isolated instance in recent times where clearly administrative measures are being taken to change the character of Chinese and Tamil primary schools. In Malacca, as a result of a circular issued by the Director-General of Education in June this year with regard to guidelines in school cultural performances, one secondary school cancelled its annual cultural concert because it featured the typical Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian dances and songs! In another school in Malacca, the Chinese Language Society’s annual Chinese Language magazine named ‘Root’ was banned by the State Education department as being likely to create greater racial polarisation – although this was subsequently countermanded after public protests.

Parliament must know that the concern expressed by leaders about the worsening racial polarisation in the country would come to nought if in schools, racial polarisation is aggravated by insensitive, indifferent and even high-handed actions of education officials who behaved more as extremist UMNO politicians than as even-handed, sensitive and temperate administrators of an education system to perpetuate the multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religion nation which is the distinctive feature of Malaysia.

The Federal Territory Director of Education must be censured for his action which had aggravated racial polarisation in schools, and this should serve as a warning to all future government administration that they should not try to play politics in their government posts, and show themselves even more eager than UMNO political masters to convert Chinese and Tamil primary schools into national primary schools.

In the final analysis, only the repeal of Clause 21(2) of the 1961 Education Act could give firm guarantee to the continues and perpetual preservation of mother-tongue education in Malaysia – but this is something that not only UMNO, but MCA, Gerakan, SUPP, MIC, Berjaya are strongly opposed!

(Speech by Parliament Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang in Dewan Rakyat on the estimates for the Ministry of Education on November 19, 1984)