This article was first published in Aliran on 27 July 2023
Education is the most important function of the state. It serves the present and secures the future of the nation. It is a function that serves the intimate needs of the individual, for their development and their role in society. Yet, the function is ill-defined, particularly in determining the rights of those who seek education and the duties of those providing it..
The three students who sued their teacher for not attending classes he was assigned to teach won a historical court decision that adds clarity to the relationship between those seeking education and those assigned to provide it. In adding to that clarity, the decision of the High Court in Sabah may have gone further than any pretentious report or official pontifications to stir a reform of the National Education System in this country.
The students, in their twenties, when the action was commenced in 2020, were suing their English teacher who was absent from classes for long periods leading to their final government examinations in 2017. No coherent reasons for the teacher’s absence for such astonishingly long periods are found in any of the media reports.
Kota Belud, where the school is located is not rural but neither is it a city like Kuala Lumpur. Students and parents in such places rely completely on teachers, schools and the education system to ensure that children raised there receive a good education.
In their action, the students cited not only the English teacher but the entire hierarchy of officials from the school principal to the Minister of Education. Other than the recalcitrant teacher, the list of defendants included the school principal, the Director General of the Ministry of Education, the Minister of Education Minister and the government.
In his judgement, High Court judge Leonard David Shim said that the students had proved that the teacher was frequently or wholly absent in the months leading to the final exam on November 2017. The Court found no evidence to show that he was on leave or involved in other school activities during the long period of his absence as he had claimed. Shim J appears not to have paid any regard to the defendants’ attempt to argue that the students were so poor in their subjects that having a teacher in the class would not have made a difference to their performance in the examinations. Nor does it appear from the media reports that the judge was impressed by the attempts to tarnish the honesty and integrity of the students.
What is significant about the decision is that Shim J agreed with the plaint that the defendants were in breach of their statutory duties to the students. This note is written from media reports without the benefit of reading Shim J’s judgement. However, from what is reported in the different media, the judge is reported to have said that there was both evidence of negligence on the part of the defendants and a breach of their statutory duty to the students. Importantly, Shim J said that the students had a constitutional right to education and that the defendants were in breach of that duty.
The consequences of those findings will have far-reaching effects on the way government schools are managed. The position now is that the educational system is managed as a closed enterprise that allows little or no scrutiny by the stakeholders, including parents. Even parent-teacher associations which are sanctioned by the Education Act have little influence in the way school principals carry out their duties. The autocratic system functions as if it has no duties or responsibilities to pupils, parents or the system despite statutory prescriptions.
The judicial recognition of statutory duties to students and a constitutional right to education alters established practices and holds everyone from teachers to the minister accountable for their allocated responsibilities. Shim J’s decision might herald a change in the way the educational system operates that will benefit citizens and the state.
The three students each received RM30,000 as nominal damages and RM20,000 as aggravated damages to emphasise the seriousness of the breach by the defendants. What these courageous students have done for the nation has a value that cannot be measured in monetary terms.
The nation owes them an inestimable debt of gratitude.