Was Tun Tan Siew Sin being pragmatic on Merdeka University?

Posted on: March 15, 2017, by :
Commentary, Learning Chinese education movement, han chiang college, independent Chinese Schools, KTAR, MCA, Merdeka University, Ministry of Higher Education, Nanyang university, new era university college, southern university college, TAR College, Tun Tan Siew Sin, UEC, UTAR

An article in Mar 05, 2017 edition of the Chinese press, Oriental Daily entitled, “Ong Ka Chuan laments on injustice to Tan Siew Sin” [黄家泉为敦陈修信打抱不平]  caught this author’s eye. It was related to a comment made by Tun Tan Siew Sin in 1969 relating to the issue of Merdeka University (MU), “It is easier for hell to freeze than the Merdeka University to be established in this country.” Back then, Tun Tan Siew Sin, the leader of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the component party of the ruling Government of Malaysia received a lot of negative feedback for his comment. MCA subsequently fared badly in the General Election of 1969. But hindsight is always 20/20 as they say. Today if we take an objective look at the subject matter, we might have a different conclusion or at least acknowledge the differing viewpoint.

The Merdeka University saga was played out for close to fifteen years from 1968 when the idea of Mederka University was mooted by the Chinese educationist movement till July 02, 1982 when the Federal Court decided against the case of MU. The advocates of MU wanted to establish a private university which would use Chinese as the core medium of instruction.

Briefly, the following general grounds were given by the Federal court judges for their decision:

(a) that the establishment of MU would violate article 152 of the Federal Constitution;

(b) that any university – whether public or privately sponsored – established under the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) is a public authority and thus MU which would use Chinese as the core medium of instruction would be, if allowed to establish, in violation of UUCA.

While contemplating writing this article, this author had a long discussion on this matter with his long time friend and fellow learner, TPK who is more learned than this author in the area of the history of the Chinese educationist movement. TPK said these wise words, “历史事件放在不同的时代背景有不同的解读和意义” [historical event, if placed under different settings and era would have a different interpretation and meaning]. Although, in the writing of this article, this author has tried his best to stick to “”what has happened” and did not analyze “what could have happened”, some degree of expressing one’s own opinion especially in interpretation of facts and information that could be a bit fuzzy, is inevitable. I shall leave it to my readers to decide on whether they agree with my interpretation on the issue of Merdeka University or other wise!

For those who wish to learn more about the MU saga, Dr. Ang Meng Chee’s PhD thesis (in English) and Professor Tsau Shu Yao’s paper (in Chinese) provide excellent insights.

Basically the MU advocates who were mainly from the Chinese educationist movement wanted to set up a university to cater to the needs of Chinese Malaysians in the sixty independent Chinese secondary schools (ICS) who did not (still do not) follow the national curriculum. As such, unless these ICS students also present the Malaysia Certificate in Education (MCE) and the Higher School Certificate (HSC) [both MCE and HSC used mainly English as the medium of instructions which was replaced with Bahasa Malaysia for those, including this author, who entered Form One in 1976. In 1980 Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia which is conducted solely in Bahasa Malaysia replaced the MCE], they would not be eligible to enter public universities in Malaysia. Thus traditionally, ICS students who would usually only take their own Unified Examination Certificate (UEC – which is conducted in Chinese and later in English as well,  is the equivalent to the HSC) would need to leave Malaysia in search of tertiary education, with Singapore and Taiwan being the main beneficiaries of the talents of the ICS since the early 1960s.

It is worth noting that during the 1970s to 80s (and it is still true today), the majority of Chinese Malaysians would go to national or national-type secondary schools where both types of schools offered the national curriculum. In addition, in the era of the 1960s to early 1980s, the majority of Chinese Malaysians (I would offer a guess that this constituted about 60% on average of this group of people) simply were not Chinese educated. This meant that they did not go to Chinese primary schools and thus do not read or write Chinese. Even many who did go to Chinese primary schools would not have taken Chinese language as a subject at lower secondary or at MCE / SPM level. Hence during the saga of MU, the majority of Chinese Malaysians would not have qualified to enter it if the core language of instruction was Chinese. Even this author, who learned Chinese up to upper secondary level (and hold a Grade B in Chinese at GCE “O” level) would find it challenging to study at university level if the medium of instruction is solely in Chinese. Although some of the Chinese educationist leaders proposed that MU should adopt a multi-languages approach to the delivery of teaching and learning, the final decision made by the MU advocates was for the proposed university to have Chinese as the core medium of instruction.

This author was privileged to be invited to deliver a public lecture at Tunghai University, Taiwan on July 28, 2016 where he gave two key reasons for MU being a gallant but failed initiative.

  1. MU advocating the use of Chinese as the core medium of instruction.:
    MU as an initiative was overly ambitious. By stating that MU would have Chinese as its core medium of instruction, about 60% of Chinese Malaysians who were not conversant in the language would not be able to enter MU. Thus the support from the “English educated” Chinese Malaysians would have been hard to come by. The judgment of the Federal Court in 1982 put paid to the use of Chinese language as the main medium of instruction as this would have violated article 152 of the Federal Constitution.
  2. The rise of Malay nationalism and increasingly politicization of education post May 13, 1969:
    As we have seen in the Federal Court judgement, to allow MU to be established both the Federal Constitution and the Universities and University Colleges Act would need to be amended. While number wise, the sitting government had more than the two-third majority to table the required amendments, in reality, it would be a political suicide for any ruling politician, especially those from the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) to vote for such sensitive amendments in light of the rising Malay nationalism and the push by the government to the use of Bahasa Malaysia as the sole medium of instructions at public institutions of higher learning.

The two key reasons above, on hindsight, showed the pragmatism of Tun Tan Siew Sin in his statement in 1969 which caused him so much reputational damage at that time. In reality in the Malaysia of 1969, it would have been really impossible to have a private university, let alone one which would use Chinese as the core medium of instruction.

In 1979,  this author and a bunch of friends asked a very learned secondary school senior teachers (who has now passed on) who belonged to the 60% Chinese (that is, he was not Chinese educated) on his take on the Merdeka University saga. Here is what this author remembers educationist, Mr. SC said: “If the intention of the advocates of MU was to create more seats at universities for Chinese Malaysians in the face of increasingly unbalanced admission quota, this people should have approached the issue differently,” Mr. SC went on to tell us what he thought was a better strategy. The MU advocates should have, first asked the Government to set up more universities. This would have created more seats for Chinese Malaysians even with the admission quota. However, the Government might have said that financially it would not be in the position to do so. The MU advocates should then offer to pay for the setting up of a new university which would mirror the academic, organizational structure and governance of either University Malaya or Universiti Sains Malaysia, using the same language of instruction but with one key proviso, that its admission would be solely based on merits. It would, according to the very learned Mr. SC, be very difficult for the Government to reject this idea. For good measure, the MU advocates could propose to the Government that they would want to have a Faculty of Chinese to promote the learning and growth of the Chinese language proficiency of Malaysians. This opined Mr. SC would not have bound the hands of the politicians and would not have MU violated article 152 of the Constitution. Most importantly, more Chinese Malaysians would have seats at universities.

It took another fourteen years for what Mr. SC advocated to become reality when a new act, ACT 555 (Private Higher Institutional Act) was enacted where private colleges and private universities were allowed to offer diploma and degree programmes of one form or another. That was the beginning of the boom phase of Malaysia’s private higher education industry which today number 495 institutions, with 20 public universities, 36 polytechnics and 20 other state-funded institutions making around 571 tertiary institutions of higher learning offering diploma and degree courses. With the enactment of ACT 555, the Government also allowed the private colleges and private universities / university-colleges to take in students from ICS offering UEC as an entrance qualification thus providing a local route for ICS students since 1996. ACT 555 also made provision for private institutions of higher learning to apply to the relevant Government department in the Ministry of Education to use English and Arabic as the core medium of instruction. However for the use of any other languages, a private college / university would need the specific approval of the Minister of Education.
[In 2004, the Government of Malaysia seeing the importance of the higher education sector, split off the higher education portion from the Ministry of Education to form a new ministry, the Ministry of Higher education. Aside from a short period between 2013 – 2015 where the two ministries were re-merged, the Ministry of Higher Education governs the entire higher education sector of the country]

In addition, in the aftermath of the Merdeka University saga, three Chinese Malaysian community established colleges were approved by the Government. These three institutions were formed between 1996 and 1999, where each has its own faculty of Chinese, thus providing additional seats for those who wish to learn Chinese at university level. Today, two of these institutions, namely Southern University College and New Era University College have attained university-college status in 2012 and 2017 respectively. Han Chiang University College of Communication, where this author served a stint as its Principal & designated Vice-Chancellor though  which was granted and established as a university-college in 2014, is still working on the requirements for registration of Han Chiang University College at present and attained full registration on Nov 03, 2017. These three institutions collectively are often viewed by many in the Chinese educationist movement as the “phoenixes” of the demised Merdeka University and that of the original but now defunct Nanyang University founded in Singapore in 1956 by the Chinese communities of Malaysia and Singapore which was restructured as the Nanyang Technological University by the Singapore Government in 1980.

More significantly, the MCA,  in light of the sentiment of their supporters drawn mainly from Chinese Malaysians did manage to extract a major concession from the Government in the form of Tunku Abdul Rahaman College which was set up in 1969 and attained university-college status in 2013 (TAR-UC). In addition, the Government also allowed the MCA to set up a full-fledged university, University Tunku Abdul Rahaman (UTAR)  in 2002 where an Institute of Chinese Studies was approved to be established offering Chinese studies at both bachelor’s and Master’s levels. Today, TAR-UC has six campuses across Malaysia with 28,000 students while UTAR has three campuses educating 26,000 students.

Although the advocates of MU did not achieve their aim of establishing a fully private university with Chinese as the core medium of instruction, it will be unfair to deny their place in history as the catalyst that started the entire private higher education industry in Malaysia.

Today, with so many seats in Malaysian private colleges and universities chasing the ever decreasing pool of local talents, academically qualified Chinese Malaysians will no longer be denied a chance of studying at college level. The extension of the provision of funding by the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN) to students of private colleges and universities in 1999 also helped to finance the studies of many Chinese Malaysians at private institutions of higher learning thus removing another major hurdle for any Malaysian seeking higher education at private colleges and universities..

It is the humble opinion of this author that without the struggle and advocacy of the Chinese educationist movement of the 1960s to 1980s, the private higher education sector in Malaysia which today educate about 45% of young Malaysians, would not have flourished from the mid 1990s to mid 2000s and matured to the level of today.

With the seemingly hostile environment for the establishment of any private institutions of higher learning in 1969, who would have thought that Malaysia of today can have around 40% of her youths enrolled in tertiary institutions. Furthermore, Malaysia is also home to over 150,000 international students and indeed is the 9th ranked country for higher education! And hell need not freeze over for all these to be attained too!

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