This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 12, 2022 - September 18, 2022
The saga continues. It was in November 2018 when I first wrote about extreme teacher absenteeism at SMK Taun Gusi, where a former student had filed a court summons against eight defendants, including the English language teacher who had failed to teach for seven months of the 2015 academic year, the principal, the district education officer and the state education department director. The other defendants were the director-general of the Ministry of Education (MoE), the education minister, the MoE and the government for threats, fabricated records and a systematic cover-up. And thus began the relentless Tiada.Guru Campaign by student whistleblowers.
The plaintiff, Siti Nafirah Siman from Kampung Jawi-Jawi, Kota Belud, Sabah, is the youngest of five siblings, and the only daughter. She was raised by her mother after her father passed away when she was seven. She says, “Without teachers, we cannot be successful; we fail to achieve our ambitions. Without teachers, we lose direction, we lose education. Without education, our lives become abject and meaningless.”
She was one of the youngest plaintiffs in Malaysian history when she filed her case with the High Court in 2018. Her four major victories over the federal government during pre-trial case management have sent out the message that children will no longer accept the culture of fear and silence instilled by MoE and its officers. Her case is slated to be heard from Sept 12 to 15 after a four-year wait.
Since then, in 2020, three other former students of SMK Taun Gusi have similarly filed High Court summonses against five of the above defendants.
Rusiah Sabdarin, the first plaintiff to join the 2020 summons, is from Kampung Taun Gusi II, Kota Belud. She was a class monitor and thus responsible for the teachers’ attendance book. She was raised by a single father who is a chicken trader. In her words, “Cases of absent teachers have been recurring for decades but it has never been raised as a critical, urgent issue in our communities. I myself have experienced this event. It’s not only in Sabah but throughout Malaysia.”
Calvina Angayung lives in Kampung Rampayan Laut, Kota Belud. A former head prefect of SMK Taun Gusi, she is the daughter of a fisherman, and the first in the family to enter university. She opines, “What further amplifies my courage is our solidarity; we support this mission together, we do not forget Siti Nafirah’s struggles in this work; our hope is that her struggle, and now our struggle, will open Malaysia’s eyes to the problem of extreme teacher absenteeism.”
Nur Natasha Allisya Hamali is fighting for all students who have suffered, particularly in Kota Belud. She was a prefect at SMK Taun Gusi, the daughter of a policeman-turned-imam and a homemaker, and the third among four siblings.
She asserts, “Should such public servants, teachers and MoE officers be given another chance after years of hurting students? Too much time has been wasted by a teacher who remorselessly refuses to teach for months each year. I wonder what was the fate of the students before us? Because after what happened to Siti Nafirah, it continued to happen to us even two years later.”
Their case was heard in the Kota Kinabalu High Court on Sept 5, 2022, and will tentatively continue on Sept 23. Prior to this, the defendants had taken over 155 days to enter their defence in court.
More peculiar is that past principals of SMK Taun Gusi have been persons of immense influence in the education system. The seventh principal, Datuk Dr Amin Senin, was the director-general of education until 2019; the ninth principal, Datuk Jame Alip, was the director of education, Sabah, until 2016; the 11th principal, Umin Sadi, was a director of the Kota Kinabalu District Education Department until 2019; while the 13th principal, Said Andong, is the husband of the former director of education, Sabah, until 2018. One can only wonder.
It gets stranger. Kota Belud has produced ministers of repute, among them, the late Tun Mohammad Said Keruak, former chief minister and former governor of Sabah; Datuk Salleh Said Keruak, former Sabah chief minister, former federal minister of Telecommunications and Multimedia, and former speaker of the Sabah State Legislature; and Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, former speaker of the Dewan Rakyat and former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. Also hailing from the district is Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, former federal minister of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government and former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department; and Isnaraissah Munirah Majilis, former deputy federal minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change.
Oddly, in spite of the prominence of the leaders of Kota Belud, it remains among the 10 poorest districts in Sabah, with an absolute poverty rate three times higher than the rural average, and where 29% of the homes still do not have piped water. It also has the second-highest child population, highest poverty rate, worst inequality, and lowest exam scores. So, what gives?
We pray the courts will decide in favour of the plaintiffs. They should set a precedent for teacher truancy, which must be punishable and not result in a mere transfer to another school. More students should stand up for their right to education. May justice prevail for the brave young women of Kota Belud, Sabah, and the future of education in Malaysia where teachers hold the trump card. Or not? We will soon find out.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders
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