Path that crosses cultures

September 22, 2000

Immigrants want their children to retain a sense of their community and to be modern, writes Wang Gungwu

At a conference in Singapore on modern education in immigrant communities, we were recently reminded of a Chinese immigrant entrepreneur-philanthropist, Tan Kah Kee, who made his fortune in British Malaya and introduced modern education to its immigrant Chinese communities.

Active at the turn of the 20th century and dying only after Malaya had become independent and China had fallen to the Communist Party, Kee was exceptionally bold in his commercial, agricultural and industrial enterprises. Although his decision to build schools at every level was not an original idea, his commitment to using his wealth almost exclusively for modern education certainly was radical. He believed that children should not only learn the classics, but should seek practical knowledge from the people he considered the most advanced in his day, the British in Asia.

Kee's farsightedness was best exemplified in his support for further education for Chinese children abroad by building a fully fledged Chinese high school in Singapore, followed by the university at Xiamen, the city nearest his home town in China. This university remains to this day one of the best in southern China.

Dissatisfied with the traditional classes that taught simple reading, writing and counting and some awareness of traditional values, Kee saw that the western mission schools that transmitted ancient faiths also offered modern subjects of practical use and was attracted to the idea of teaching children to respect their history and culture while freeing them to challenge outdated knowledge.

The conference followed this theme to bring up major issues in the role of modern education for immigrant communities. The first concerned how these communities abroad were internally integrated and how they related to their families back home, the link that gave them social cohesion. At the same time, modern education introduced new ideas and methods that could liberate the minds of the young. Thus, it could provide both social bonding and the potential for social freedom.

How relevant is this today when most immigrants, once admitted, enjoy the freedom to move about and make choices about their lives?

Compared with a few decades ago, there are now laws supporting rights for immigrant minorities. Education is more readily available for them and its quality much improved. In addition, they are more likely to receive help and advice about local conditions from members of established immigrant communities of their own kind.

Furthermore, the host countries have their own expectations. There are demands for political loyalty, and some nation-states are narrowly assimilationist towards all immigrants.

On the other hand, there is also a wide range of attempts to offer multicultural approaches towards social integration. This highlighted the second issue. What can the new multiculturalism do for modern education?

The survey of experiments in countries such as Australia and the United States, compared with efforts in France, Britain, Singapore and Malaysia, was enlightening. When introduced in schools, these experiments in national education produced considerable tensions. They often gave rise to learning problems for young children and caused deep divisions within the larger society. But, if the opportunity to learn one's own culture and mother tongue was left until the tertiary level, only a few would still be interested in the marginal ethnic courses that are usually being offered. As a result, the immigrant communities feel a distinct loss of identity in their next generation.

The immigrant communities do have choices. They could demand bilingual education so that their children may be taught at least partly in their own languages. They could set up private after-school classes and have their children acquire their respective language and culture while attending national schools during the day. Or they could concentrate on national education and hope that some of their children will return to study their own culture at college.

It is interesting to see how immigrant communities in both Australia and the United States have been dealing with these choices. The interest shown by educationists at all levels is particularly encouraging. The amount of goodwill in the host countries varied from state to state, but there is also a great deal of tolerance of differences. Many studies have been done to show the efficiency or not of some of the approaches. While the results of school-level trials have been inconclusive, some new trends in the role of tertiary institutions may prove more helpful.

The role of the better colleges and universities is potentially important. These are the institutions that immigrant children of Asian origins have targeted and have demanded more courses in their own cultures and languages. The impact on other areas of the arts and humanities follows readily. This gives the descendants of immigrants a chance to regain their sense of origin and possibly even capture the feel of their multiple identities.

Tan Kah Kee wanted only to educate a generation of modern Chinese. That simple concern has been extended this century so that immigrants everywhere now share his concern to educate their children to be both ethnically secure and modern at the same time. If they cannot find satisfaction through the school systems in their host countries, they might focus on what the best colleges and universities can be persuaded to do.

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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