DONG Zong has come under tremendous pressure to bring about urgent reforms to the curriculum of Chinese independent high schools as its content has largely been unchanged in the last 40 years.
The leading Chinese education group, or United School Committees Association of Malaysia, is in charge of the curriculum for 61 Chinese secondary schools and conducting the standardised United Examinations Certificate (UEC) examination. Currently, there are more than 82,000 students in these schools.
The UEC curriculum, taken from Taiwan in the mid-1970s, is falling behind the times. While Taiwan - taking after the West - has instituted reforms since the 1990s to lean towards a generalist and less exam-focused curriculum, Dong Zong has been accused of not doing much to keep up with changes in technology and global education trends. Schools continue to focus greatly on Science and Mathematics and making students memorise rather than be creative.
As a result, students from Chinese independent high schools are generally less flexible compared with their peers from public and international schools.
Seeing the problems faced by Chinese high schools that could threaten their survival, headmasters of these schools called for urgent reforms at a regular biennial two-day meeting organised by Dong Zong late last month.
School heads pointed out to Dong Zong that the mushrooming of international schools with flexible syllabi offering Mandarin as a subject is posing a threat to the survival of Chinese high schools.
They told Dong Zong that the current Chinese high school education system is losing its appeal in the face of globalisation that is spurring the resurgence of English as a medium of communication.
Many Chinese high schools are losing high achievers to international schools after the students complete their UEC junior examination and score well in the government SPM examination, normally taken by good students in the second year of senior high school.
In fact, the inaction of Dong Zong with regards to the curriculum in the past has forced some schools to draft their own textbooks to keep up with the times.
"The UEC examination was introduced in 1975 but after 40 years, there is still not much change in the curriculum or improvement in the exam system. Many of us see the need for reform," says Dr Phoon Wing Keong, principal of Confucian Private Secondary School, who led the call for reforms at the meeting hosted by Dong Zong over Nov 23 and Nov 24.
"The curriculum and examination system of many international schools are creative and progressive while ours are traditional, conservative and do not encourage creativity and self-learning. Now, we still focus on monologue teaching and memorisation," adds Phoon, at an interview with Sunday Star.
The principal, who is also a prominent writer, blames the recently-ended 18-month power struggle in Dong Zong for the current sad state of affairs.
He argues that the organisation has not paid heed to developments and trends in education despite the emergence of YouTube, Facebook and e-commerce over the past 10 years.
"In the past 10 years, a lot of technology and IT changes have taken place. Yet, there was no change to our syllabus. Hence, parents from the upper middle class are sending their children to international schools although their school fees are very much higher than ours," says Phoon.
The school fees in Chinese independent high schools range from RM60 (S$20) to RM250 per month, depending on the size and location of the schools. But international school fees can go as high as RM20,000 or more a year.
Lai Soon Keat, who was a senior member of staff at the Dong Zong's secretariat in Kajang, Selangor, when Dr Yap Sin Tian was president, agrees with Phoon that the previous leadership had wasted more time quarrelling than developing Chinese education.
But Dong Zong's leadership before Dr Yap was not blamed for the missing action. This was because in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the Dong Zong was confronted with many thorny Chinese education issues that threatened the very survival of Chinese education. Leaders had to deal with larger problems. Hence, the curriculum issue - though it existed - was not highlighted then.
Chinese independent high schools, which are largely supported by donations from the Chinese community, emerged in the 1960s and 1970s after they refused to change their medium of instruction from Chinese into Bahasa Malaysia. As the UEC certificates issued by the Dong Zong are not recognised by the Government, school leavers cannot enter public universities and join the civil service.
The outspoken Phoon feels that Dong Zong "has missed one decade of golden years of opportunity" to push for greater recognition of Chinese education and its status due to weak leadership and a power struggle.
"Since the political tsunami in the general election of 2008, the political situation has favoured the opposition. And yet, there were little or no effort made to champion legitimate rights to Chinese education."
Phoon says Chinese education has also lost one generation of young Chinese. "Now, young people are not interested in the Chinese education movement. They see the Dong Zong as lao hua (ageing) and falling behind others."
At the meeting last month, Goh Kean Seng, principal of Kelantan Chung Hwa Independent High School, said reforms should also include introducing a system to reduce instances of the board of directors interfering in school management, as this has hampered the schools' development.
According to a Chinese media report, Goh also listed school factional disputes and the lack of a clear policy direction and proper management system as factors that undermined progress.
In proposing changes, principals suggested that the Dong Zong set up its own teacher training college to upgrade the quality of teachers and modernise teaching methods.
Many teachers, who are graduates specialising in their own respective subjects, have no professional teaching qualification. And even administrators do not have professional management skills.
Acknowledging the need for reforms, Dong Zong president Temenggong Datuk Vincent Lau Lee Ming says the organisation has formed a working committee with another education group Jiao Zong "to study and develop matters on the building and reform of Chinese independent secondary schools with regards to curriculum, examination and teacher training".
Lau was elected on Aug 23 this year after Dr Yap and his team were ousted.
In a written reply to questions, Lau says that the joint working committee will invite experienced educationists to develop a "Malaysian Chinese Secondary School Education Blueprint".
The curriculum issue has also caught the attention of the public. Columnists in Chinese media have reminded the Dong Zong not to water down the characteristics of Chinese education and culture when introducing changes to textbook content.
They also reminded the Dong Zong not to accept "unreasonable demands" from the Government as conditions for recognition of the UEC.
Even without government recognition of the UEC, good students with strong results are accepted in many top universities, they argue.
On Nov 25, Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid met Dong Zong leaders to discuss Chinese education issues and, after the meeting, the minister gave a verbal promise that they would explore the possibility of getting UEC qualifications recognised.
The Dong Zong has been told to amend its history and Bahasa Malaysia curriculum.
To allay the fears of the Chinese community, the Dong Zong says it will maintain its longstanding stance "to oppose the implementation of monolingual education policy, such as the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025, that threatens the survival and development of education taught in the people's own language (mother tongue)."
The Dong Zong has also been reminded by school heads that it cannot afford to be complacent just because student enrolment at Chinese high schools has risen to a new peak of 82,000 this year.
"This peak does not mean there is no crisis faced by Chinese high schools. Enrolment has risen partly because public schools are not well managed and partly because some public schools show racial and religious discrimination," says Phoon, pointing out that the population of Chinese is stagnating.
But amidst all the concerns for the Chinese education system and calls for reforms, not all is gloomy.
Most believe that Chinese schools will not vanish in Malaysia, as its tradition of preaching Chinese values (such as respect for elders, filial piety, and integrity) and inculcating strict discipline in students is greatly appreciated by Chinese parents.
In addition, many students with a strong Chinese background find it easier to acquire knowledge and skills via their mother tongue.
And the rise of China as the world's second largest economic power will lure more students - including those from other ethnic groups - to learn Chinese and its culture.