Is Umno Youth exploiting vernacular education for political relevancy?

                           Umno Youth leader Dr Akmal Saleh (Pic credit: Facebook page)
Umno Youth leader Dr Akmal Saleh appears to be ignoring the fact that the vernacular schools are becoming increasingly popular among Malay parents (Pic credit: Akmal Saleh's Facebook)

Umno Youth chief Dr Akmal Saleh is currently on a roll. 

Weeks after calling for the resignation of tourism, arts and culture minister Tiong King Sing over the ministry's decision to make “bak kut teh” a national heritage dish, he is now training his guns on vernacular schools.

Akmal was reported as having called for a “comprehensive review” of vernacular education in this country, as he claimed that Malaysians have become segregated from a young age due to vernacular schools.

The Merlimau assemblyman also said that Umno Youth would hold a nationwide debate session on the re-establishment of single-stream schools. The backlash against his comments are mounting, rightfully so.

One might have thought that with the Court of Appeal having affirmed last year that the vernacular schools are constitutional, Umno Youth and other right-wing Malay groups would end their incessant calls for vernacular education to be abolished. Unfortunately, we are not seeing that happening.

Akmal appears to be conveniently ignoring the facts on that ground which is that Malay parents are increasingly enrolling their children into Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools - with the former witnessing a much significant trend.

In addition, the decline in the birth rate among the Malaysian Chinese community has led to these schools becoming increasingly dependent on the non-Chinese community to ensure that the enrollment rate remains optimal.

We even have a Malay academic who said that there is no reason to worry about the future of Chinese vernacular schools, as the space left by declining Chinese birth rates will be filled by non-Chinese students.

Vernacular schools are becoming more and more diverse - they might become the next national schools in the future. Therefore, it would be safe to say that Akmal’s talking points are fast becoming stale. 

His call for a “review” on vernacular education (which could be construed as a coded call for abolishment) raises a question worth pondering: Is Umno Youth exploiting vernacular education to remain relevant among conservative Malays?

Let us look into the current state of Umno. The Barisan Nasional lynchpin has been losing its relevance among the Malays ever since it lost its grip on Putrajaya for the first time after 60 years in power - in the 14th general elections. Umno's unquestionable loyalty to kleptocrat Najib Razak was to be blamed for its loss. 

Not comfortable being made a “political eunuch” by being made the opposition, this Malay party eventually took part in the Sheraton Move manoeuvre engineered by Perikatan Nasional in February 2020 - which brought down an elected government. Political stability then ensued for two years as two prime ministers from the BN-PN coalition helmed the country. 

After making an unceremonious comeback in Putrajaya through backdoor means, Umno began to make a case for its “proper, rightful" return to Putrajaya as the 15th general elections (GE15) was by arguing that only Barisan Nasional could bring political stability into Malaysia - something that it said Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional could not accomplish.

It's messages failed to entice voters, especially the Malays to support Umno, as they came out in droves and kicked out BN in Kedah, Terengganu and several other states by backing the PAS-dominant PN - which had since become the de-facto voice of the Malay conservatives. 

Umno then took another beating from the Malays last year when it only won 19 out of 108 seats contested in the August state elections in six states. It was wiped out in Kedah and Terengganu, while it only has two state assemblymen in Penang and Selangor respectively, and a representative in Kelantan. 

Creating visibility with racial flames

As for Umno Youth, the party wing is fast losing relevance among young conservative Malays as a significant portion of this demographic group is still with PN.

So, how would a youth wing of the ethnic party show to the Malay polity that it still exists and that it is still a voice for the conservative Malays? The answer is simple: Let’s stoke the racial flames by attacking vernacular schools. 

Let’s make a scapegoat out of vernacular schools. Let’s blame these schools for hampering racial integration despite the fact that our racial politics is the true culprit that has been worsening race relations in the country.

Let's villainise vernacular schools to prop up national schools even though our very own leaders are enrolling their kids into Chinese and international schools.

Let’s blame vernacular schools for “promoting racial segregation” despite the fact that national schools have repeatedly failed to make themselves “preferable” for non-Malay parents with poor infrastructure, increasingly Islamic curriculum, worrying trends of Islamic evangelism where non-Muslim and Orang Asli students converted into Islam without parental consent.

If calling for the abolishment of vernacular schools helps make Bersatu and PAS heroes of the conservative Malays, let us do the same.

The answer is “Yes”

Going back to the question posed earlier, on whether UMNO Youth is exploiting vernacular schools for political clouts, the answer is definitely a hard “Yes”.

And it is sickening that Akmal and UMNO Youth would resort to doing so just to remain visible in the conservative Malay polity that is increasingly dismissive towards them. 

Not only would this tactic fail to woo young Malay conservatives towards Umno, but it would further entrench the non-Malays' hatred towards it.

Perhaps Akmal has forgotten that the non-Malay PH base has been a saving grace for Umno when they voted for Umno candidates in last year’s state elections in the name of unity.

Perhaps Akmal and UMNO Youth are “eager” to further lose the non-Malay votes for BN. 

Talk about shooting your foot. 


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