The front page of Sin Chew Daily last Sunday featured the picture of a Chinese pupil leaving the exam hall crying after sitting for the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) Chinese Language examination paper. She was distraught after she failed to answer some "very difficult" questions.
Those in the know have said the questions could only be tackled by students at a higher level of education.
The other Chinese newspapers also reported extensively on UPSR exam-takers leaving examination halls teary-eyed after sitting for the paper. The UPSR exam took place from Sept 8 to Sept 10.
The news reports could have been easily brushed off as another annoying issue in Chinese education, but a sharp remark by one VIP in the Government turned it into a burning issue within the Chinese community and in education circles.
"The objective questions in the exam could not be answered confidently even by Chinese language professors such as Datuk Dr Lim Chooi Kwa and Datuk Dr Hou Kok Chong. How could you expect a 12-year-old to tackle these questions?" said Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong, MCA deputy president and Minister in the Prime Minister's Department.
Dr Wee's son was also a "victim" of the tough paper. The boy claimed that some questions were copied from an SPM workbook that, others said, originated from secondary school teaching materials in China.
The contentious exam questions, which number five to eight out of 40 objective questions, have infuriated many educated Chinese parents whose complaints flooded the Chinese print media and social media. But not all parents are complaining, as some have said they did not mind their children being given challenging questions. They agree with the Higher Order Thinking Skills questions introduced in government exams since last year to test students' critical and reflective thinking and problem-solving and reasoning skills.
An 800-word essay for the comprehension section of the paper, "Homework for Mother" on the last interactions between a filial son and his dying mother, attracted the most criticism. The passage is a moving tale of an educated son teaching his illiterate mother to write her children's names to distract her from the pain of end-stage cancer.
Said to have been taken from the textbook for China's lower secondary schools, the standard of this passage is regarded as high for primary schools by several university lecturers. The text is generally perceived to be intellectually too demanding for primary school pupils.
Responding to the uproar, new Deputy Education Minister Chong Sin Woon promptly called for a meeting with the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate, which is in charge of the UPSR, Pentaksiran Tingkatan Tiga and SPM exams.
Chong, who is also MCA Youth leader, announced on Thursday that the examinations syndicate has promised to make adjustments to the paper after he asked why exam materials were taken from China and why the length of passages was longer than the stipulated 500 words.
Apart from parents, influential groups and people linked to education have also voiced their concern.
National Union of Teaching Profession secretary-general Datuk Lok Yim Pheng said those who set the questions for the paper should be made answerable.
"The UPSR is an exam to evaluate a student's performance after six years of education; they shouldn't be tortured with difficult papers," she told The Star last week.
Dr Wee, who was once Deputy Education Minister, urged the exam panel not to kill pupils' interest in learning Chinese.
A senior teacher who did not want to be named told The Star that some of those who set UPSR Chinese questions take pride in setting "high-standard questions".
"It seems our Chinese panel at the Education Ministry is very proud of the high standard it has set," the teacher said.
Ong Chiow Chuan, the national chairman of Jiao Zong (United School Teachers Associations of Malaysia), said: "These people deliberately set high-standard questions to prove they are good, to test students. Their behaviour is ridiculous, irresponsible and unprofessional."
He urged the Education Ministry to review its exam panels, saying that the UPSR exam panel should comprise teachers from primary schools rather than educators from secondary schools or higher educational institutions.
Although Dr Wee ruled out the "conspiracy" theory that this was an effort to undermine Chinese education, arguing that the questions were set by ethnic Chinese, Dong Zong's former president Dr Yap Sin Tian was quick to link this incident with the current education policy.
"The ridiculously high standard of the UPSR Chinese exam reflects the Government's move to sideline vernacular education. Setting difficult questions is one way of deterring the proper development of Chinese education in this country," he told the Chinese media.
An officer from the exam syndicate has told Deputy Education Minister Chong that the questions were set based on the procedures laid down by the Education Ministry, and students were able to answer the questions during trial exams in schools.
But, argued Yap: "This (tough paper) is one of many long-standing issues faced by Chinese schools, which also includes low financial allocations and the shortage of teachers. Similar complaints about overly high standards have been heard about the Chinese exam papers at Form Three and Form Five (SPM) levels in the past."
Indeed, the unusually high standard of Chinese papers in secondary school exams has discouraged top students, who aim to score full As in all exam papers, from taking the Chinese language subject.
According to a Sin Chew Daily compilation, an average of 18,000 students a year dropped the Chinese paper in the SPM between 2010 and 2014. And in this four-year period, there was a yearly decline in the numbers taking the SPM Chinese paper.
As the burst of anger over this particular UPSR case appears to be explosive, the MCA could not ignore it, particularly knowing that 90 per cent of Chinese parents in the country send their children to Chinese primary schools.
The MCA, an ethnic-Chinese political party, has often pledged that it would "swim or sink with Chinese primary schools", and Chong's speedy action and Dr Wee's loud verbal protest certainly lent credibility to this pledge.
And, most important of all, MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai also expressed concern about this UPSR issue. He said the party's education consultative committee will look into the problem.
With the Chinese education movement still reeling from the infighting in the Dong Zong, the MCA's role in Chinese education in Malaysia has become even more crucial now.