Pak Lah was at his old secondary school alumni, High School Bukit Mertajam (HSBM) to launch the HSBM Alumni Malaysia Students' Welfare Fund where he recounted his experience in early education. This was reported in the Star today. I've quoted below, a large chunk of the article here, because I can't find words which will make the message any clearer.
The Prime Minister spent the first four years of his primary education at a madrasah before being sent to the English school where he was placed in the Special Malay Class 1 (SMC 1) as he could not speak in English back then.In hindsight, Pak Lah realised that the ability to speak good English provided him with an edge for many of his future classmates spoke only English.
That year, the headmaster decided to change the system and let a non-Malay teach that class.
“Imagine how I felt, I didn't understand anything he said,” said Abdullah, who added that he had no one at home to teach him English. But that was the best change the headmaster made. He felt that if we were to be given a good foundation in English, our teacher should be someone who did not speak Malay. Soon, we were speaking better English than those in SMC 2.”
“Our good foundation in English helped us to communicate with our new friends. Language became the tool that brought us together,” he said, adding that he then made great friends with many non-Malays. Abdullah said his two good friends, fellow alumnus Datuk Lim Chee Wah and P. Kanason were Chinese and Indian, but the fact that they were from a different race and religion was never a conscious factor to him.Pak Lah needs to recount these stories more often to the nation for these are the stories that will hopefully over time, shift the mindset of the language nationalists (of all races) to understand the importance of the English language.
“It was an excellent opportunity for me to mix with students from other races and it taught me a good lesson on how to respect and tolerate my friends who are non-Malays. Because of this experience, I learned to respect the non-Muslims and non-Malays,” he said.
More importantly, and more subtly, the message emphasises the key importance of racial integration from young. It is only through regular interaction, will one learn to "respect and tolerate" the "non-Muslims and non-Malays" (and of course, vice versa). However, contrary to Pak Lah's experience in the 50s, the education system in Malaysia has evolved over time to become more racially centric (see blogpost here), particularly at institutions of higher learning where regulation specifically prevents a mixed racial education. Many Malay students, particularly the top performing ones, are strongly encouraged to join the Maktab Rendah Sains Malaysia (MRSM) matriculation colleges. There are of course also "institutionalised" racial and political universities such as UiTM for Malays and UTAR for Chinese.
I believe that Pak Lah is sincere in wanting to see a racially integrated and harmonious education system and society in Malaysia. However, the question is, what does it take for the rest of his administration to put aside short term political posturing to share his vision for a truly united Malaysia.