Ministry matters

Please have a heart, Ministry of Education

Photo for illustrative purposes only. — Photo by Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images

The recent incident of a nine-year-old girl in Sarawak who was denied access to education, due to her papers status, is heartbreaking. She is one of a large number of children in Malaysia who are denied their basic right to education, some born to Malaysian parents. A conservative estimate suggests that more than 300,000 children in Malaysia are currently deprived of education because they are stateless, refugees, asylum seekers or undocumented.

What is puzzling is that this denial of access to education takes place in the face of national policies that support education for all children in Malaysia, regardless of their documentation status.

Here is a summary of national policies that support education for all:

1. The National Education Policy (2017, page 22) states that primary education is compulsory for all children aged 6-12, including non-citizens.

2. The zero rejection policy launched in 2018 aimed to ensure that all children in the country, including undocumented children, had access to education.

3. In May 2021, our then Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin reiterated in a speech on Teachers Day that the government is committed to ensuring that no student in Malaysia not be denied a proper education, including undocumented children.

Therefore, we have to ask ourselves why is this not effective in the field? Why do schools ask for citizenship documents before admitting children to basic education? We no longer have a “Zero Rejection Policy” but a “Safe Rejection Policy” if the child is undocumented. Why do the large numbers of stateless Malays (an oxymoron here) in Sabah and Sarawak continue to be denied the same rights as the rest of our children? Why are refugee children in detention denied even basic reading and writing skills?

Is this a problem of local “little napoleons” or a reversal of the policy of the Ministry of Education? Go even against the promises of our Prime Minister? A recent detailed analysis, by Dr. Tharani Loganathan and colleagues, of the failure to provide education to children from undocumented families in Malaysia is worth reading; it highlights all the issues and problems of different undocumented communities including refugees and asylum seekers, migrants and stateless people in Malaysia.

We would be appalled if the same standard that we apply to these children were applied to our children overseas. When many of us travel to study abroad, we are easily accepted into the education system of many other countries. But we don’t offer the same to those who come to our country.

We have Malaysians and the government actively fighting for Palestinian children 7,600 km away but not fighting for children in our county. It’s high time we fixed our own backyard.

Poverty is a trap from which it is very difficult to escape and which has devastating effects on children and families. We all know that education is a means that creates opportunities for children and families to get out of this “trap”.

To deny education to these children is to imprison them, and their future children, in poverty. These children are not numbers or statistics but real lives that are damaged by our behavior and reaction.

Note that if we have spoken here of education, the same right should also apply to access to health for all children.

We call on the Ministry of Education to enforce our national policy and aspiration to provide quality education to all children in Malaysia.

Any nation that does not provide food, shelter, education and health to ALL children as a basic right, regardless of their documented status, is a failed nation.

Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS is Consultant Pediatrician. This statement is supported by 105 organizations and individuals.