A Short History of Tamil Schools in Malaya/ Malaysia

Author:   Sivachandralingam Sundara Raja

A Short History of Tamil Schools in Malaya/ Malaysia

Associate Professor Sivachandralingam Sundara Raja, Department of History, University Malaya, siva@um.edu.my

It has been 200 years since the first Tamil class was held in 1816 at the Penang Free School, founded by Reverend R.S. Hutchings, Colonial Chaplain of the Anglican Church. Formal Tamil schools were opened in the Straits Settlements by Christian missionary bodies in the first half of the 19th century. In Malacca, an Anglo-Tamil School was established around 1850. From 1850 onward more Tamil schools were opened in Province Wellesley and in Johor by missionary bodies such as the Ladies Bible and Tract Society, the Society of Propagation of Christianity and the Big Missions.  Essentially, the real motive behind the schools and missions were to spread Christianity and to prove that only Christianity can uplift humankind. In so doing most of the subjects in missionary-run Tamil schools were taught in the English language and Tamil were taught merely as a subject. During the early years of the Federated Malay States (FMS), Ceylonese missionaries were instrumental in the development of Tamil schools. Amongst them was Reverend Samuel Thambo Abraham from Jaffna who in 1896 assisted the Tamil Church in Malacca Street to open up the Anglo-Tamil School in Kuala Lumpur. In 1902, the two schools merged to form the now famous Methodist Boys School and Reverend Abraham served as its first headmaster.

The most significant push in the development of Tamil schools in the FMS was from the beginning of the 20th century when large number of Tamil laborers were recruited to work in estate plantations particularly rubber. The colonial government considered the establishment of Tamil schools useful to maintain Indian workforce for a long period of time. Some planters therefore started Tamil schools voluntarily in their plantations. Tamil schools were nevertheless few until 1912 when the Labor Code Ordinance required an estate with ten children of school age (defined as between 6 and 12 years) to provide schooling facilities. Planters were obliged to open Tamil schools on estates, but most of the schools in the rubber estates were of poor standards. The reason is partly because of the prevailing attitude among planters that Tamil plantation schools served mainly to attract new laborers and to preserve the children of laborers for future supply. Planters for the most part did not observe the Code; fearing educated laborers might demonstrate greater activism. Moreover, in most plantations there were more crèches where children were looked after than schools. The few Tamil schools in rubber estates were constantly undermined by various problems. Firstly most of the schools lacked proper infrastructure and teaching facilities, which led classes to be frequently held at the verandah schools or the so-called “Thinnai Palli”. Another major shortcoming was the lack of qualified teachers. The supposed teacher was often the kangani (Indian labor recruiter), an estate clerk, a dresser or even a literate labor. Third, a very limited curriculum comprising for four to five years of primary education focusing on reading, writing, arithmetic and rudimentary natural sciences. These problems were compounded by Indian laborers themselves who considered it more worthwhile to bring their children to assist them in the estates.

At the same time several Tamil schools were established in urban areas by individuals and religious organizations. In 1906, the Thambhoosamy Tamil School was opened in Sentul by an individual named Rajasooria followed by the Vivekananda Tamil School in 1914. In Kuala Lumpur, the late Swami Atmaram, a disciple of the Saivite Saint Appar, led the Appar Seva Sangam to establish the Appar Tamil School (now being managed by a Saivite Organization) in the early 1930s. By 1922, there were 6 Tamil schools sponsored by various urban community committees in the Straits Settlements and 122 in the FMS. On the other hand 4 missionary-sponsored Tamil schools and 13 estate schools were operating since 1905. As of 1920 there were a total of 4 thousand Tamil school students in the Federated Malay States.

However, in all of these initiatives the colonial government’s involvement was minimal. The British officially regarded the Tamil laborers as birds of passage who would one day return to India after they had earned enough. Generally, the government was also not inclined to expend money on Tamil vernacular education and provision beyond primary education was even thought to be unnecessary.

 Under the pressure from the Government of India, the FMS government introduced the Labor Code of 1923 with new provisions to make it made mandatory for each plantation having ten or more resident children of school-going-age to provide Tamil schools. However, only a few rubber plantations were able to hire qualified teachers and to provide facilities necessary to run a school. There was, nevertheless, an increase in the number of Tamil schools in the Straits Settlements and the FMS. In 1925, 235 schools were being run in the FMS and had 8,153 students in total. By 1930, there were 333 schools for a total of 8,153 students. A small amount of federal grants at the rate of $6 per pupil were also given to Tamil schools (based on its students’ performance in examination) as an incentive to comply with the regulation of the 1923 Labor Code. Another significant development was the appointment in 1930 of an overseer from the Malaysian Educational Service to supervise Tamil schools. During the depression years (1929 to 1933) rubber-growing companies began to hire teachers for a full time wage instead of part-time substitute teachers. However, most of these full-time teachers did not have proper teaching certificates, mainly due to the absence of provision for teacher training program. In 1937, an official Inspector of schools with knowledge of Tamil was appointed to oversee Tamil schools. However there was little improvement in enrollment rate among the Tamil schools. The depression years, furthermore, saw the closing down of several estate schools. By 1938, there were 13 government-sponsored and 23 Tamil mission schools, with a total of 22,820 pupils, in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States.

The progress of Tamil schools was hindered during the Japanese occupation, from 1941 to 1945. Japanese education policy in relation to Tamil schools was that they were to continue as before but with the Japanese language, Nippon Go, being the official medium of instruction. The development of Tamil schools was, anyhow, undermined due to the largely subsistence nature of Malaya’s economy during the occupation. School-going children of Indian laborers were forced to forsake their education to support themselves. Furthermore, the mandatory recruitment of Indian laborers by the Japanese occupiers to build the notorious “death railway” led many to stop their children from schooling.  As a result, many Tamil schools within estates and elsewhere were closed. It is reported that there were only 292 Tamil schools in 1943 compared to 644 before the war.

After the Japanese occupation, the government of the Malayan Union (1946 to 1948) worked towards restoring schools and it was decided that Tamil schools were to be accorded the same treatment as Chinese and Malay vernacular schools. In 1946 the Malayan Union Council Paper No. 153 was passed under which there would be six years of free primary education in Tamil schools. This policy led to an increase in the enrolment rate in Tamil primary schools compared to previous years. Tamil were to be used as the medium of instruction and English as compulsory subject in Tamil vernacular schools. Indian parents were also allowed to send their children to either Tamil or English schools. The Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), formed in 1946, urged the government to formulate policies by which Tamil primary school leavers would be more able to pursue their secondary studies.

A series of education reports by the succeeding Federation government (1948 to 1963) were to profoundly affect the development of Tamil schools. In mid-1950, the recommendations of the First Report of the Central Advisory Committee on Education, commonly known as the Holgate Report, implied the abolishment of government aid to Tamil schools. Due to severe objection the Holgate Report was shelved and the Report of the Committee of Malay Education followed in 1951. Better known as the Barnes Report, the implication of its recommendations was that all Tamil schools were to close down and integrate in national schools where only Malay and English were to be used at the primary level. In 1951, the British government commissioned the Fenn-Wu Committee to study the educational needs of the Chinese. This development encouraged the MIC to form an education committee to study the educational needs of the Indians. The 1952 Education Ordinance, however, suggested the abolishment of Tamil vernacular and the establishment of English and Malay medium schools where Malay was to be taught as a compulsory subject. The ordinance could not be fully implemented, and, thus, the Razak Report of 1956 made some fundamental concessions. With regards the Indian community the report proposed that Tamil primary schools were to continue with English and Malay as compulsory subjects. The Razak Report also provided an avenue for Tamil primary school leavers to further their secondary level education through transition schools. In 1961, the Rahman Talib Report made provisions for Tamil schools to be recognized as ‘national-type’ schools.

Tamil school generally remained a poor man’s school in the post-independent era. By 1975 Tamil estate laborers constituted only 45% of the plantation community, all of whom were politically and economically too weak to demand for better school and education facilities.A survey conducted by the MIC on 346 Tamil schools in 1999 shows that 104 were wood-sided buildings and few schools only had a single building. The enrolment rate in Tamil primary schools from 1957 to 2005 was as a whole lower compared with other medium primary schools. Consequently, the number of Tamil schools dropped significantly from 720 in 1967 to the remaining 523 today. Most of these schools lack proper infrastructure and learning facilities including those that are necessary for the learning of information technologies. Besides that, Tamil primary school teachers are often insufficiently trained and sometimes only available on temporary contracts. The considerable lack of intellectual stimulation at home and in the community further accentuates the dismal state of Tamil schools. Dropout rate is, thus, the highest in Tamil primary schools. Furthermore most of the Tamil schools are located on private land and therefore not eligible for a full grant from the government. The MIC too has not been able to provide adequate assistance. It was the HINDRAF’s (Hindu Rights Action Force) campaign in 2007 that triggered the government to announce huge funds to alleviate Tamil schools following the 12th General Election (2008). The government has also established several coordination units under the Prime Minister’s Department in 2010 to sketch a sustainable roadmap to ensure the progress of the 523 Tamil primary schools in Malaysia.




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