Where does the right to have vernacular education come from?

Vernacular means one’s mother tongue. 

The question is, can the government guarantee you the right to attend school?  And choose to be educated in a medium of instruction that is your mother tongue?


[1] This question has recently hit the headlines for many reasons

We shall not go into the politics of it, but we can study the law behind it.

What follows is only my view.


[2] So, to answer the question, we need to look at four sources

The first three are sources of law and the last is a series of historical documents.

[3] The first source of law is the international obligation of the nation

Human beings have the fundamental rights to education. They have the right to communicate in their own language and study at a school. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees this. It’s an international treaty. Malaysia is a signatory to Article 26 of the declaration that states that everyone has the right to education.

Education, it declares, shall be free, at least in the elementary stages. 

In 1999, at the 30th session of UNESCO General Conference, member countries adopted a resolution for multilingual education and the use of at least three languages in education.

The first was the mother tongue, the second was regional or national language, and the last was international languages, like Tamil, Bahasa Malaysia, and English.

Since then, UNESCO has promoted multilingual education to improve learning outcomes and to give life to cultural diversity on the 16th of May, 2007. 

The UN General Assembly recognises pursuing multilingualism to promote, protect and preserve the diversity of languages and cultures all across the world.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova underlines the basic principles of children learning in their mother tongue. 

She said it is essential to encourage full respect for the use of mother tongues in teaching and learning. This promotes linguistic diversity. 

Inclusive language education policies, says Ms Bokova, will contribute to tolerance, social cohesion, and ultimately, to peace.

So, there you have international law, which emphasises vernacular education.

[4] The second source of law is the Malaysian Constitution

It has three relevant provisions. 

Article 5 guarantees liberty, a person can do whatever he or she likes, as long as it is legal and legitimate.

Under Article 8, every person has a right to equality. 

So, if a person wishes to study his own language in a school, no government could stop her from so doing.

Article 12, on the other hand, allows a person to go to a government funded school, no matter what his race or religion is.  

The laws of the nation require the government to provide schools for that very purpose.

In fact, the Constitution goes even further. Under Article 12 clause (2), even religious groups may run their own religious schools.

[5] The third source of law is a Malaysian Act of Parliament that deals with education

It is called the Education Act of 1996. Its forerunner was the Education Ordinance of 1952, which was passed when some of you were not even born, to which we shall turn shortly.

Section 2 of the 1996 Education Act allows the establishment of ‘national type schools’. 

When a school is referred to as a ‘national type school’, that means it is a ‘government school’ or a ‘government aided school’.  

The law allows such schools to use the Chinese or Tamil language as the primary medium of instruction.

[6] So, we have covered three sources of law

[7] Let’s now deal with some interesting historical points

I’m cutting a long story short. Back in the early 1950s, when the Federation of Malaya still under British rule, three different committees were asked to study how to form vernacular schools.

In 1951, the Barnes committee submitted a report to the government. 

It was headed by the then Acting Director of Education, LD Whitfield. It focused mainly on educational upliftment of the Malay community. 

But the report is important because it recommended that a child’s primary education should be in its mother tongue.

However, the British proposed a national education system. 

The colonialists recommended the use of English as the primary medium of instruction in national schools.

Despite these advances, there was very little opportunity for vernacular schools, especially for Malayans of either ethnic Chinese or Indian origin.

Therefore, in July 1951, the then Federal Legislative Council commissioned the Fenn-Woo committee. It submitted. This was before Parliament was established in 1957.

The Fenn-Woo report recommended trilingual schools: their respective media of instructions were to be in the Malay, Chinese, or Tamil languages.

Then, in 1952, the Razak Committee studied all these proposals. 

The Razak committee helped draft the Education Ordinance 1952. That Ordinance was the forerunner to the current 1996 Education Act. 

This Ordinance allowed vernacular schools to be established.

From 1952, it was only a brief journey. The enactment of the Federal Constitution in 1957 and then the Education Act 1996: all of which allowed the establishment of vernacular schools.

As you can see from all this, it is not quite right to say that we should shut down Malaysian vernacular language schools in Malaysia. 

Not only is it a denial of fundamental rights, it is against the flow and legitimate expectation of the different communities.

And there I leave you. I trust this little research was useful to you.


You May Also Like

Is the King’s power to grant a pardon, ‘personal’ and ‘absolute’?


The Gopal Sri Ram I knew

Why do Malaysian Ministers refuse to go on leave, or better still, resign, when their character in public office is called into question?