Allow room for critical thinking


FIVE school teachers have been given show cause letters by the Education Ministry for being “excessively” critical of the Government in public forums and the like. I wish I could find out what they said; it would be nice to see what “excessive” is.

The Education Minister also said that civil servants should be loyal to the Government and any criticism should be done via the “correct channels”. But all this silencing of educators is not undemocratic, he says because it is done via the law – namely the General Orders which civil servants are bound by.

How quaint.

These are really old justifications that have been used for decades.

Firstly, one has to wonder what “proper channels” there are and whether they are effective or not. If these channels are not open to the public (and I am certain by “proper” it is meant “discreet”) then they can easily be ignored.

Secondly, just because a law exists to silence people, that does not make it right. A power provided by legislation can be just as undemocratic as an unfettered discretionary power.

These five teachers are facing the beginnings of disciplinary action for things which they did outside of the classroom. But the Youth and Sports Minister has chipped in saying that things done within the classrooms should not be used as a “political platform”.

Well, sure, it would be unseemly and inappropriate for any sort of political campaigning to be done in classrooms. Kind of pointless as well, since schoolchildren can’t vote.

But I wonder; what if a history teacher decides to point out the fact that Umno was late in joining the calls for independence and in fact the originator for that call was the Malayan Left. Would this be political?

And that is just within the context of schools. Universities offer courses and have departments whose entire purpose is to examine critically what happens in society, which includes what the Government does.

A Social Science Department that does not cover race-based policies in the country will not be doing its job. An economics department that does not explore the effect of corruption on the well-being of the country will not be doing its job. A law faculty that does not criticise unjust laws and judgments will not be doing its job.

However, recently, public universities have received a circular, once again written under the authority of legislation meant to control civil servants, where we have been told that we can’t say or do anything that could be deemed as manifesting disloyalty to King, country and government.

Well, I can tell you that makes my job as a Human Rights and Environmental Law lecturer very simple then.

I think I can just turn up to class for the rest of the semester with a guitar and sing Kumbaya with my students for an hour.

Of course I won’t do that. This is because my responsibility as a lecturer, and a teacher’s responsibility, is first and foremost to our students. Our job is to broaden their horizons and to show them not just what is, but what should be.

As long as what is being taught is backed up by good research and sound reasoning, then what is said should not be penalised.

If we do our jobs well, we produce thinking graduates and by this we serve the people and the nation. Not the Government.

It is not just teachers and lecturers who have been under the cosh recently; university students have not escaped either. Nowadays any show of dissent from students will ensure disciplinary hearings. But one student in particular has had the full force of so called anti-terrorism laws, and all the intense pain and stress that implies for her and her family, used against her.

Siti Nor Aishah Atan was a Master’s student in Universiti Malaya. She was apparently doing research on terrorism, and as part of her work she had in her possession, surprise surprise, books related to the subject. She was arrested last year for being in possession of “illegal” books.

The High Court released her on the grounds that there was no evidence that the books were “illegal”. She was then rearrested and detained without trial under the Prevention of Crime Act for 60 days.

Upon her release she was made to wear an electronic tag and report to the police once a week. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, unhappy with the High Court, appealed the decision and she was detained without trial again, now under the Special Offences (Special Measures) Act.

My question is this: Siti has been under investigation and watch since September last year; she has been detained for two months, and she has had her movements monitored, so why the need to detain her further? Unless, this girl from Terengganu, is some sort of genius terrorist mastermind (which is the reason why one presumes the AG’s Chambers are so dogged) or the investigating agencies are utterly incompetent for not being able to find enough evidence to charge her properly in court.

Besides, what she was doing was research. Surely in the face of very real terrorist threats the world over, such research should be carried out and not punished.

But then, in a land where civil servants are expected to be docile and lecturers are faced with restrictions which are designed to cow them into total intellectual impotence, logic does not really come into the equation.

  • Azmi Sharom (azmi.sharom@gmail.com) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Azmi Sharom , columnist