Looking for the right school for your child in Malaysia? Mission schools remain the first choice.
Their reputation as centers of excellence and learning remains intact and they continue to draw students from all communities, much to the government’s chagrin.
The reasons for this are varied but central is the belief that they stand for discipline and are a safe zone for non-Muslims in a country that is rapidly Islamizing.
But this view of such schools as a sanctuary for non-Muslims may be a mirage.
There are three types of public schools in the country: government, government-aided and private schools. The majority of mission schools are government-aided. Their staff are appointed and paid by the government. The churches retain ownership of the property and look after its administration through a board of governors.
If the church authorities have qualified candidates for principal, they can propose that these individuals be appointed but this privilege is gradually eroding.
The other government-aided schools are the “vernacular” schools that cater to the Chinese and Indian communities and use Mandarin and Tamil for instruction. All primary and secondary school education is free in government and government-aided schools.
All schools, including mission schools are considered state schools as long as they are government-aided. The mission schools in Malaysia gave up their independence and agreed to government funding in the 1970s as they could no longer support these schools by themselves.
There are 448 Christian and mission schools in the country. Of these, 228 are in the traditionally Christian Borneo states of Sarawak (130) and Sabah (98).
Sister Rita Chew, head of the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu’s education commission, told ucanews.com, that she is concerned about maintaining the integrity of a well-rounded education in a climate of increasing religious segregation, distrust and political weakness.
“Some people seem very intent on pushing an Islamic agenda right from kindergarten,” Sister Chew said.
“This is our chief concern. Conversions are taking place in schools but they (the government) are denying it. It’s happening in the kindergartens. Christian parents are discovering their children are learning Islamic prayers,” she said.
Conversions are reportedly taking place in all schools. There is a bias against non-Muslim students. The majority of students in all schools are Muslim. Enrollment in schools is determined by proximity of residence.
Christian and non-Muslim parents do their best to get their children placed in mission schools.
Education in the Malaysia is overseen by the Ministry of Education and is compulsory until the end of primary school. Malay and English are compulsory subjects. Instruction in all schools, except the vernacular schools, is Malay. In the vernacular schools it is Mandarin and Tamil.
For now, despite the rise of a more assertive brand of Islam, many Muslim parents also remain keen to get their children enrolled in mission schools.
The percentage of Muslims in the mission schools is determined by the location of the school. Schools in areas with high concentration of Muslims will have a large number of them in that school. By and large, the Muslim student population in schools follows the country’s demographics.
“They see these schools as more disciplined and a place where the focus is on academic (excellence) rather than religion, cultural things and so on,” said a recently retired teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Government schools have a reputation of being pro-Malay and Islamic-focused. They do produce good results but are mostly dominated by one community,” he said.
“The focus there is exams and result oriented … not an open, all round education or knowledge, which is what parents also want for their children.”
Cases of racial and religious bias in all schools have caused unease.
In 2013, a principal forced non-Muslim students to eat their lunch in the school’s restroom during the Muslim fasting month.
Native Christian parents in Sarawak and Sabah have repeatedly complained how Islamic religious teachers browbeat and attempt to convert their children to Islam.
“Our religion is Christian. We are very upset … the school changed the status of our children to Malay,” a group of parents in Sarawak wrote in a letter to the teachers’ union head in 2010. Religion is stated on all identity cards in Malaysia.
In November last year, the appointment of an ustaz (Muslim religious teacher) as principal of a mission school in Sarawak caused an outcry amid warnings of a rise in reports of conversions in rural schools.
Sister Chew says the issue is out in the open and pointed to an incident where students claimed they were barred from acknowledging their Christian faith within the premises of the institute they were studying in.
Both Sarawak and Sabah have large Christian populations and have become a magnet for Islamic missionary groups, known as Dakwah groups.
For the Catholic nun it is as though such groups, with the government’s consent, are in a race to reclassify the two Borneo states as Islamic.
“They have become very intent on pushing Islam (in all schools apart from private schools) … starting from kindergarten,” she says.
The preference for mission schools by Christian and Muslim parents has been noted with consternation by the government, according to a senior teacher.
The trend is at odds with the government’s Islamic policy drive.
Siti, a Muslim mother of two, has a simple reason for enrolling her daughter in a mission school. She graduated from a mission school in the 1970s.
She also noted how her daughter was more confident and enterprising compared to her son, who graduated from a national school.
Siti attributes her daughter’s resourcefulness to the mission schools’ mixed racial environment along with its well-known emphasis on discipline and academic excellence.
Another factor that sets mission schools apart from the state system in Malaysia is the “check and balance” role that church authorities have through their board of governors.
Julia, a former mission school administrator, seems to think so. “This is the main distinction and asset mission schools have compared to national schools,” she said,
She says it’s unsurprising parents, irrespective of race or religion, are unhappy with the government-owned and managed schools.
“They are results oriented and don’t focus on an all round education,” she says.
Her assessment is borne out by employment opportunities for the two groups of high-school graduates.
An entrepreneur who wanted to be known only as Jas, told ucanews.com that while he always scrutinized the qualifications of potential employees and tried not to stereotype, he favored graduates of mission schools.
He says Malay Muslim students from government schools act “entitled,” while non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and Christian mission school graduates “worked harder to succeed.”