Trilingual school values roots
Strong community ties, multicultural learning attracting more students
At first glance into the classroom in Brunei it is difficult to discern the school’s “nationality”. “Save the Planet” is written in English on the blackboard; “Stay hungry, stay foolish” is written in Chinese above the board and photos of the monarchy adorn the wall.
Girls with and without headdress and boys speaking different languages enjoy their time together during a break under the sun.
For Kho Guik Lan, principal of the Chung Hwa Middle School, multicultural integration was one of the reasons that the Chinese school, which only had 20 students and a few shabby classrooms nine decades ago, has become the largest of eight Chinese schools in Brunei.
“No matter where the students are from, be they Chinese, Malay or Indian, they are here because they want to learn Chinese. We valued the Chinese cultural inheritance, while at the same time localization is an inevitable path for us,” said Kho, who was a student at the school from 1969 to 1974 and became its principal in 1997.
Established in 1922 by Chinese immigrants, Chung Hwa Middle School is a nonprofit school supported by donations. It does not receive government funding like public schools. Therefore, it is more expensive than mostly free public schools.
But money was not a hurdle for the school’s growing popularity. Of the more than 3,000 students, the proportion of Malay students jumped to 25 percent from only 5 percent decades ago, according to Kho.
“The school has strong roots in the community as more and more parents would like to send their children to learn Chinese, an asset that can help them to go to or do business in China,” she said.
Localization accelerated in the 1990s when the government required Malay and English to be compulsory. Chung Hwa Middle School followed the system, but also kept Chinese as a compulsory language.
The curriculum has changed. Chinese history and geography are no longer taught even though Kho studied them in the school. However, Chinese language lessons touch upon those subjects.
For Rifa Jabeen, an 11-year-old Indian-Bruneian, trilingual learning may be more demanding, but it is also more rewarding.
“Learning Chinese is a bit difficult, but I like it,” said the Muslim girl, who has a Chinese name like the rest of the non-Chinese students in the school. “The school is nice and big, and everyone here is friendly.”
As a member of the school’s chorus, she can sing a popular Chinese children’s song Singing and Smile.
“I cannot totally understand the song’s meaning, but I can feel that it’s a happy song. I’ve listened to it since I was in kindergarten,” she said. “I want to learn more Chinese songs, and want to visit China one day, especially Beijing.”
The growing number of nonChinese students has led the school to focus more on cultural diversity than before. But it also values traditional Chinese culture.
“We have about 30 extracurricular activities involving different cultures, like Chinese chess, Western music and soccer. Students can learn and at the same time know how to get along with their peers from different cultural backgrounds during these programs,” said Kho.
“But Chinese culture is still the priority; after all, one of the most important reasons why the school was established was to provide a better life and education for their kids. They don’t want their offspring to forget about their roots,” she said.
With a traditional Chinese principle of “Propriety, Righteousness, Modesty, Remorsefulness” as the motto, the school also named its buildings from eight traditional Chinese virtues, including respect and filial piety.
“Cultural preservation among the Chinese groups in Brunei is better than that in China,” said Xu Jianling, a Chinese language teacher from Guangdong province.
“My family and I were surprised to see the Chinese community perform dragon dances, which rarely take place on the Chinese mainland now, during the traditional Chinese New Year,” said Xu, who had worked in Guangdong for about three decades before coming to the school five years ago.
Xu is one of the 21 teachers from the Chinese mainland teaching in the school. Some of them teach Chinese music, dance and martial arts.
“At home, we tend to take our cultural heritage for granted. While overseas Chinese, even the young ones, value Chinese culture as proof of their identify in a multicultural environment.’’
Speaking of the school’s future, Kho said she hoped to see more improvement in teaching and in character building of students.
“It’s not easy for a private school to compete with free public schools, so we must convince parents through our students’ performance,” she said.
The achievements of the students were evident and prizes are won regularly across a range of areas.
The Sultan of Brunei has visited the school on several occasions.
Xu, who taught Chinese in Thailand for two years, said Brunei is a standard-bearer of Chinese teaching in Southeast Asia.
Currently, she leads a panel to improve reading and writing capabilities. They are bringing in textbooks from the Chinese mainland.
Three years ago the school introduced textbooks from Suzhou, Jiangsu province, for grades one to three. It is now planning to use Chinese textbooks from a school in Beijing for the rest of the primary school phase － grades four to six, according to Xu.
Brunei Chung Hwa Middle School students perform during a traditional Chinese New Year gala in Bandar Seri Begawan on Feb 16. The school is focusing on cultural diversity to attract more non-Chinese students.