Non-partisan politics should be taught in school

Josh Hong

Seputeh MP Teresa Kok may well try to take Deputy Education Minister Mah Hang Soon to task for preventing a DAP fundraiser at SJKC La Salle but her government reinforced the same directive when in power. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, September 27, 2022.

SEPUTEH MP Teresa Kok recently took Deputy Education Minister Mah Hang Soon to task over the Education Ministry’s alleged verbal order to prevent opposition parties from renting a school hall for fundraising activities.

According to Kok, also a prominent DAP leader, the board of administrators of SJKC La Salle had agreed to rent out the school hall for a fundraising dinner organised by her party division, only to be informed by the ministry that the political event could not take place at a government school.

Kok further claimed that Mah’s special officer had cautioned the school’s administrators against renting out the venue, or action could be taken against the staff.

Mah in turn denied having exercised any pressure on the school, retorting that political activities were banned from government schools in accordance with “existing regulations”.

So, who is telling the truth?

Let’s have a look at the Education Ministry Circular No. 5/1999 (Surat Pekeliling Ikhtisas Bil. 5/1999), in which it is stated that:

“The ministry has repeatedly warned officials and supporting staff not to engage in anti-government political activities. However, the ministry is still receiving reports, complaints and evidence which indicate that there are education service officers, supporting staff and school pupils involved in anti-government activities by attending illegal gatherings, demonstrations, possessing and listening to tape recordings of anti-government speeches, as well as pasting and distributing posters and leaflets for organisations and political leaders.”

In short, any form of political activity carried out in the office, in the school area or in the classroom is absolutely prohibited… officers and supporting staff found to be in breach of this prohibition may be subject to action.

No doubt, school halls do constitute a school area; the question now is whether the board of administrators indeed enjoy the autonomy under the Education Act and is free to rent out the venue to political parties, as Kok later pointed out in reply to Mah’s clarification.

However, given that the ministry circular remains in force, you cannot dismiss the possibility of certain school staff, fearful of political repercussions or even disciplinary action, choosing to alert the ministry of the event.

Since it was going to be a DAP fundraising dinner, would anyone honestly think there would not be any fiery speech that could be construed as being “anti-government”?

It would also be more than likely that posters, banners and leaflets would be pasted around the school hall.

Don’t get me wrong. It is not that I agree with the excessive restrictions spelled out in the circular, which was issued at the height of the reformasi movement in the late 1990s when tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest against the persecution of Anwar Ibrahim by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Considering Anwar’s immense popularity among young Malaysians in those days, it was clearly meant to contain any potential spillover of the anti-government sentiment into government schools.

On the contrary, while I am wary of partisan politics, political education is long overdue as far as government schools are concerned.

Interestingly, Maszlee Malik, the education minister during the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, opted to defend the circular by reminding that “opposition MPs who want to enter a government school need to secure permission from the director of the state department of education as stated in the circular”.

To be fair to him, the former education minister did not use the word “prohibited”, but he did state categorically that permission was needed, and that it was to prevent schools from becoming “politicised” (jadi bahan politik).

He also said that “they (opposition MPs) are not allowed to campaign or bring flags (into the school), so on and so forth”.

Now, I would like to ask why Maszlee, who was seemingly proud to serve in a “new Malaysia”, did not annul the circular?

Had he done so, would Mah have been able to resort to it in this case?

I do think it is high time Malaysian schools, regardless of streams and types, be granted the right to teach politics to pupils in a non-partisan manner, as is the case with the United Kingdom.

It is therefore truly unfortunate and regrettable that the so-called progressive PH squandered the opportunity to do just that, despite the strong mandate that it had been given.

After all, to expect Barisan Nasional to complete the job is nothing but wishful thinking. – September 27, 2022.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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