21 November 2005

Wednesday November 16, 2005
Will this register?
It's really amazing this Malaysian propensity for finding more ways to make life difficult for its own people than necessary. The latest is this ruling that Malaysian kids with foreign parents intending to go into public local schools must register that fact.
Let me first of all register my particular interest in this. I have a Malaysian child who is scheduled to start Year One in a public school in January. And guess what, she has a foreign father. So this means that I am affected by this ruling, the logic of which I fail to see.
Let me also lay on the table something else here. Twelve years ago, my older daughter also entered a local school. She was neither born in Malaysia, nor holds Malaysian citizenship because she was born before our Constitution was amended, disallowing me from bestowing on her the right to take up my citizenship.
At the time I worried about whether the school would take her in, but they did and nothing was said. (And yes, I will allow that the fact of who her maternal grandfather is may have something to do with it, though I myself never brought it up.)
In a time when many middle-class Malaysian parents want to put their children in private schools or in international schools, let me explain why I did not and do not plan to do so at the primary level. I feel very strongly that despite the many justified complaints about our education system these days, I want to send my children to local schools not so much for academic but for social reasons.
I want them to realise that there are kids from different backgrounds in our country, not just ethnically but also in terms of class. Not every child goes to school in a big car nor gets to go abroad for holidays. Even though by virtue of where we lived, my older daughter’s schoolmates were not all that different in background, still I felt she was likely to mix better than if she went to private schools.
It was also important to me, because my older girl is half-European but lives here, that she be in an environment where she could be culturally rooted in Malaysia. I did not want her to be a “third culture” child, like the children of expatriates who never live in the home countries of either parent and therefore felt no attachment to either nation. I wanted her to speak Bahasa Malaysia like a native, to feel at home among the cultural idioms of her playmates, to not feel alienated in a country that is in fact home. It is primarily for this reason that, even though I could have, I did not put her in an international school.
Unlike my older daughter, her younger sister was born here and therefore is a Malaysian citizen. I still had to suffer the humiliation of not being able to sign for her Malaysian passport because at the time, Malaysian women still could not be guardians to their own children. But she is Malaysian.
For school, I wanted her to follow her sister’s footsteps for all the same reasons as before, and was happy that the school accepted her. Yet now, despite all this, she faces possible discrimination because her father is not Malaysian. What else could be the reason for wanting to register a foreign parent?
Every child has the right to education, regardless of nationality. It is one of the most important rights we can give any child because it lays the basis for that child’s future. Even if we gave the right of entry to public schools to children who are half-foreign or even all foreign, isn’t one of the benefits the fact that the schools will turn them into Malaysians in soul, if not on paper? What would I say to my child when the only country she calls home will not allow her to go to the same school as other kids who call Malaysia home? Yes I may have alternatives for her education but not everybody does. Who is this ruling aimed at? Are we discriminating not just by nationality but also by class?
Let us think long and hard before we do anything that limits children’s access to education. Is it really true that foreigners are taking over our schools, or is that a convenient myth in difficult times? Even so, why should Malaysian children suffer just because they happen to be born to one parent who is not Malaysian? Are we trying to say that Malaysians should only marry one another and no one else? Is that realistic in this globalised world? That coconut shell is still over the heads of our policy-makers it seems.