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Miseducating Malaysia


THE Barisan Nasional (BN) government is currently in the process of moving a bill to amend the Education Act 1996. Upon reading the parent Act (something that one has to do if one wants to debate the amendments), I was surprised to find out how authoritarian and undemocratic the parent Act really is. The following is a translation of my speech in Parliament on 25 Aug 2008 regarding this amendment bill.

The speech

Thank you, Datuk Speaker.

When one reads through the Education Act of 1996, it is disturbing to see how top-heavy and heavy-handed it actually is. According to this Act, all teachers in educational institutions, from kindergartens to colleges, need to be registered with the education department before they can teach anyone. It is an offence punishable by fines and a jail sentence to teach in any educational institution without being first registered. Similarly, all educational institutions have to be registered with the department.

Section 5 of the Education Act empowers the education minister to nominate the chief registrar and the deputy registrars, who have wide-ranging powers to register teachers, headmasters, as well as educational institutions. The registrar can refuse to register any party, and also has the powers to revoke the registration of any teacher or educational institution.

Section 84 of the Act allows any party, aggrieved by the decision of the registrar to not register him or her, to appeal to the minister of education. However, Section 85 of the Act states that the decision of the minister is final.

Our education system is still too authoritarian, influenced by
colonial thinking (© Valeria Cantone /
There is no independent appeals board which the aggrieved party can turn to if the minister upholds the decision of the registrar. Sure, there is an advisory board to give advice to the minister, but its members are nominated by the minister himself, and can be removed by him at any time.

So where are the checks and balances to this registration process? There is no avenue for parties having disputes with the minister and the registrar to voice out their disagreement.

Datuk Speaker, I am indeed disappointed that the minister of education did not use the opportunity presented by this Amendment Bill to create checks and balances, or construct avenues for the views of teachers and civil society to reach the policymakers. Instead of making the Act more democratic, certain sections of the parent Act were further tightened.

For example, take Section 22(3), which in the parent Act specifies that anyone who wishes to add to the syllabus of kindergartens needs to inform the registrar. The 2008 Amendment Bill tightens this by requiring a written authorisation from the registrar before the change to the syllabus can be affected. And this has to be read together with Section 22(4), which specifies a jail sentence of “not more than a year” for failure to adhere to Section 22(3)!

Datuk Speaker, the British colonialists enacted laws to limit the rights of the people and concentrate power in the hands of the executive. Their purpose was to weaken the peoples’ struggle for justice and for independence. However, the authoritarian traits of the education act cannot be blamed on the British. The Act was enacted in 1996.

It is sad to see that even after all these years of independence, we still have the same repressive mindset as the colonialists when it comes to making laws that govern our affairs. The Education Act 1996 is a mirror image of the undemocratic and heavy-handed legislation that the colonialists used to pass.

I wish to urge the ministers that they should review the tenor of our legislation. Every opportunity to move amendment bills should also be used to make our laws more democratic and less executive-centred. Avenues should be created for civil society groups to give their input. Independent boards should be set up to adjudicate differences between the executive and other stakeholders. Effective systems of checks and balances have to be created.

It is said, Datuk Speaker, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is therefore important that we consciously work towards making our legislation more democratic, thus moving towards the vision of a government by the people. End of Article

Even kindergartens are not spared from the restrictive amendments
to the Education Act (© Bianca De Block /

Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj is a physician by training and a founding member of Parti Sosialis Malaysia. He is currently Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput.

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