KUALA LUMPUR: When Steven Gan, now 42, went to school, it was perfectly ordinary for Malaysians of all races to attend a government primary school.
"We got a good education then at state schools, and it was genuinely multiracial," Gan said. The language of instruction was English until race riots struck the nation in 1969; after that, instruction was in Malay.
Gan, who is Chinese, runs an online news portal called Malaysiakini, which employs Malaysians of all races and backgrounds. He credits his education for the friends and colleagues he has across racial divides in a country where about 58 percent of the population is Malay, a little more than a quarter is Chinese and about 7 percent is Indian.
Gan feels that he was among the lucky ones - part of the last generation to have enjoyed such a rounded education in a shared language. Not only were his fellow students of all races, but his teachers were, too.
Things aredifferent now.Deciding on a language of instruction for their children - whether it is Malay, Chinese, English or Tamil - has become a conundrum for many families. It goes to the core of a larger question that nags this multiethnic nation: What constitutes Malaysian identity?
Is there one Malaysian way, requiring Chinese and Indian Malaysians to become ever more Malaysian? Or does Malaysian identity consist of varied cultures and languages that are, or ought to be, of equal standing?
Parents complain that the quality of state-run schools has dropped while Islamic content has increased. Some Malay parents send their children to Chinese-language schools, although they are more expensive because of a lack of government support.
Racial distinctions in Malaysia and the government policy of supporting a single national school system in the Malay language make choosing a school a political minefield.
The governing United Malays National Organization stakes its claim to power on protecting Malay identity and opportunity.
But many non-Malay Malaysians, like Chinese and Indians, say they face discrimination and want a more pluralistic education system and society.
Razak Baginda, executive director of the privately funded Malaysian Strategic Research Center, is - like Gan - proud to have benefited from multiracial state schools. But when he sent his daughter to one, she became uncomfortable with pressure to observe Islamic tradition andwear a head scarf.
"My daughter told me the religious teachers are the culprits," Razak said. "They inculcate very negative views of the other religions. They always have a them-and-us attitude that is very destructive, I think. And the standards have really gone down."
He added, "That feeling that standards have gone down and racial polarization is far worse today than ever before - you can attribute that to rising Islamization, which is pretty obvious."
The government has long insisted that state funds will go to state schools, where instruction is in Malay. Primary schools that teach in other languages must seek private money to supplement limited government assistance.
Government planners are starting to tackle thorny subjects such as language, education and budgets in preparation for the country's next five-year plan, which is expected to be released by the end of this year.
There was an indication in March of just how sensitive the issue is, when Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was reported to have said that giving more money to Chinese-language schools would not help national integration.
The statement angered Malaysian Chinese and forced one of Abdullah's Chinese staff members to issue a denial of the comments. Malaysiakini reported that the denial only increased anger at what was perceived as the divisiveness of government policy, because it was issued only to the Chinese media and not to the Malay media.
Another recent example of this conflict was a statement by Lim Keng Yaik, the leader of the small political party Gerakan and a member of the cabinet. After he said he thought there was too much religion in the national schools, he was vilified by the largely government-controlledmedia and later backed away from the comment.
But as Syed Nadzri, a columnist for the Malaysia-based The New Straits Times newspaper, wrote recently: "The whole episode was nothing but a true reflection of the tottering perspective of the country's education system. It was something already well known but somehow not talked about too openly."
Educators also complain about the government program of positive bias toward Malays, known as the New Economic Policy, which was introduced after the race riots in 1969 to dampen Malay fears of being overtaken economically by the Chinese.
The policy is still debated more than 35 years later as the country continues to struggle with inequities across racial lines. Critics say it has granted unfair privileges and wealth to Malays - often those linked to the governing party.Meanwhile,bright young professionals of other races have left the country in what is seen as a Malaysian brain drain.
This policy is also said to have affected hiring policies at government schools in favor of Malays, who are Muslim, sometimes at the expense of better-qualified Chinese or Indian Malaysians.
The government has trouble providing schooling for everyone because it is perceived to be offering lower-quality education. More difficulties arise when Muslim headmasters want to advocate Islamic values by limiting physical education or other activities in which boys and girls might mix, reading the Koran through the public address system, putting boys into long trousers instead of shorts, segregating classrooms and banning school concerts.
The struggle over education and its language predates Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957. Chinese-language schools were established in 1815. By 1946, there were 1,078 Chinese primary schools with 168,303 students.
Since then, the student population has grown to 640,000, while the number of Chinese-language primary schools has increased only to 1,283.
Rather than help with more funding for Chinese schools, however, the government would rather encourage more parents to choose national schools first, in the name of nation-building.
Kua Kia Soong, principal of the Chinese-language New Era College, said it had to wait for years before the government finally gave it permission to open in 1998. The government has yet to allow the college to issue degrees.
"But why they aren't allowing more vernacular schools is simple: It's an UMNO agenda,"Kua said, referring to the United Malays National Organization, the source of every prime minister of Malaysia since independence.
"The ultimate objective of the education policy," Kua said, "is to do away with all the vernacular schools because they want Malay to be the sole medium, with the rest just subsidiary. So all through the years and all the controversies, you'll find that it's always some measure or policy toward that."