A few days ago I went to visit my former teachers in Sri KDU, and had a good chat with Mr Masukor. At one point in the middle of an interesting talk regarding boarding school, he told me that one of his student told him that she has never known any Chinese friends before.

Then he also told me that a parent of one of the Chinese student expressed her concern of having her son to stay in the same house with Malay kids, citing that her son have never known any Malay friends before. And yet we boast about being a multiracial country, that our cultural diversity is our strength, that our racial harmony is something to be proud of.

But in reality, though we live side by side, we don’t live with each other. Our racial harmony may well be a by-product of ignorance, of not caring what the other races are doing, of non-interfering and very little interaction with each other, limited to only the occasional meeting in taxis and sundry shops and checkout lanes, where even then we barely talk to each other. This is certainly nothing to be proud of. Instead of the individual races being interwoven with each other to create the very fabric of our multiracial society, it is more like separate strands of ropes that don’t even touch.

Why is this so? I believe that in part – a huge part – our education system is to blame for. For any kids, schools are the best place for them to make friends. Many of us live in a racially clustered society – the Malays live where most (if not all) of the neighbours are Malays, and the same goes for the Chinese and Indians. The only place we can really bring our kids together is at school. And yet the Chinese and Indians send their kids to vernacular schools, where the other races make up of maybe less than 5% of the population. The Malays send their sons and daughters to boarding schools, where again less than 5% of the population are of the other races. In fact, in many boarding schools, there are no Chinese or Indian students at all. Little wonder then when these Malay kids and Chinese kids and Indian kids finish school and join the larger Malaysian society, they don’t know how to react with the reality of our social fabric.

I should know this. I’ve been in boarding school since I was 13. But I had a tad more luck than many of my friends. Right after I finished SPM (and my 5 years of non-interaction with friends of other races), I did my pre-university education in a private school in Kota Damansara. Of course, due to the generally less-financially-capable Malays, it was mainly the Chinese that send their kids to the school. But due to Petronas sending its scholars to this school, it’s International Baccalaureate community is rather balanced between the races. And this close interaction with the other Chinese and Indian friends forced me to really rethink my perception towards the other races in Malaysia. After years and years of living in a closed society – living alongside my own kind – this was not easy to do. I revolted. But in time, I learned to accept our differences. In time, I understood them better.

It is an inevitable consequence that without interaction, there can be no understanding, and without understanding comes all sorts of hostility and anxiety. Conscious racial harmony is simply not possible, for how can you really accept living with other people when really, you don’t even know them. Many of my friends continued their study in boarding colleges where again, very little of the population are made up of other races than Malay. I pity them, and I wonder how they’ll turn out when they leave the education world and enter the working world.

Fixing this is not easy. There have to be a major rethinking of our national education system. The Chinese and Indians would have to give up vernacular schools. The Malays have to give up boarding schools. The national schools structure have to be revamped to include the Mandarin and Tamil languages that the Chinese and Indians will surely want their children to retain. The Malays have to recognise that quality education can exist in the national schools, especially if the boarding schools no longer drain the good brains from all these national schools. These are but a tiny portion of what have to be thought and discussed about. But if we are to have a truly multiracial Malaysia where we really live with each other, not just alongside each other, somewhere along the line it has to be done. The individual racial strings can only go their separate ways for so long before they intermingle in a tight knot, and I’m sure none of us would want that.