A child enjoys the lion dance performed by Chung Hwa Middle School BSB in Brunei during Spring Festival. File photos
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei: After penning his Chinese name on a piece of paper with ease, Md Luqman Wadihan Ramlan sings a song that is partly written in an ancient form of the language.
Nine-year-old Md Luqman is a Malay who is on his way to mastering Chinese. He has been studying at the Chung Hwa Middle School in Brunei's capital for four years.
His younger brother and sister also study at the Chinese school.
Md Luqman's parents, a government school teacher and a public servant, sent their three children to the private school even though they have to pay at least $150 a month in school fees for each child.
Md Luqman and his siblings are among a growing number of Malays in Brunei who attend Chinese schools, which were virtually exclusive to Chinese immigrants just two decades ago.
More than a fifth of the more than 6,000 students in the country's eight Chinese schools are not of Chinese descent, according to school figures.
The rise of China and favorable Brunei-China ties have helped boost the popularity of Chinese schools among Malays, say educators.
"Learning Chinese has become a global trend as China grows stronger," says Kho Guik Lan, principal of Chung Hwa Middle School.
Other local educators commonly cite the example of Jim Rogers to highlight the trend.
The United States investment guru, who has said that China is on its way to becoming the superpower of the 21st century, settled in Singapore and hired Chinese teachers for his youngest daughter.
The 6-year-old girl is now said to speak fluent Chinese.
Kho said many local parents also believe Chinese could be a useful asset for their children.
Md Luqman says he knows exactly why his parents chose the school. "They want me to learn Chinese and tell me it will be useful," he says.
In Chung Hwa Middle School, Brunei's largest Chinese school, 21.5 percent of its 3,268 students are Malays and 6.7 percent are from other non-Chinese groups.
Kho who became the school's principal in 1997, was herself a student at the school from 1969 to 1974.
Traditional teaching methods, which focus on building strong fundamentals for students, have also been helping to win the hearts of a growing number of non-Chinese Bruneians, says the principal.
Lectures, readings and repetitive drills are commonly used to train pupils' memory, math and science skills, she says.
But Western teaching methods, such as visual aids, group discussions and projects, have also been frequently used in recent years to nurture students' creativity, the principal adds.
Chinese culture, which emphasizes modesty, respect and filial piety, adds to the attraction of these schools.
Many parents have told Kho that their children's discipline and manners have improved after such an emphasis.
Brunei's eight Chinese schools were established in the 1920s amid the immigration rush that lasted several decades, when Chinese people fled war-torn China for better lives in Southeast Asia.
Accounting for 11.5 percent of Brunei's population of 390,000, ethnic Chinese are now the largest minority community.
Chinese schools, all private, have more than 6,000 students in total, accounting for nearly 9 percent of students from primary to secondary schooling in Brunei.
The country had 234 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools in 2008, 150 of which were public, figures from the Ministry of Education of Brunei show.
Chinese schools are now "localized for all ethnic groups", says Han Min Yuen, permanent honorary chairman of Chung Ching Middle School.
A calligrapher and businessman, Han served as chairman of Brunei's second-largest Chinese school in the 1980s.
The localization of Chinese schools accelerated in the 1990s, when the government required these schools to follow a bilingual teaching system.
Malay and English, instead of Chinese, became the language of instruction. Now, only eight half-hour lessons in Chinese language are given every week.
The localization is also in line with social trends as the third and fourth generations of Chinese immigrants have integrated with the locals, says Kho. "As people mix with local communities, so should our school," she says.
Kho says Chung Hwa Middle School reflects Brunei's society where all people, regardless of racial and cultural background, live in peace.
Urva Emaan, a pupil in Kho's school, says: "I don't have any problem getting along with my classmates. We are all friends."
Speaking fluent Chinese, the 8-year-old American-Pakistani says her best friend in the school is Senela Beh, a Malaysian Chinese.
However, Francis F N Law, permanent honorary chairman of Belait's Chung Hwa School, the third-largest Chinese school in Brunei, expresses worry that students' Chinese proficiency has actually declined.
"Many graduates of Chinese schools fail to properly write letters or read newspapers in Chinese," he says. "While learning Chinese is becoming popular in the West and other parts of Southeast Asia, we are falling back somewhat."
Kho acknowledges such a decline, saying that students' writing and reading abilities have become weaker.
Chung Ching Middle School's Han says poorer Chinese proficiency was unavoidable because students have to master more languages and skills to face the challenges of globalization.
But educators believe Chinese schools will prosper as long as they "keep their spirit alive".
"Chinese schools teach not only the language but also traditional virtues, such as hard work and thrift," says Han.
An appetite for risk is another virtue Han deems as crucial for youngsters in oil-rich Brunei.
Unlike government-funded public schools, Chinese schools have to raise every cent on their own. Students therefore need to participate in a variety of fundraising activities, Han says.
These "no pain, no gain" campaigns instill a fighting spirit that will benefit them throughout life, especially when the younger generation in welfare-oriented Brunei becomes less aggressive, he says.
Beh Hai Yau at the Brunei Times contributed to the story