Malaysia's move to allow teachers in civil service to join politics raises eyebrows

The announcement came ahead of an election widely expected to take place later this year. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia is allowing teachers in the civil service to be involved in politics, a move that has raised concerns about its impact on the education system.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Saturday (Jan 22) that the decision applied to all teachers, including those in pre-schools, undoing a previous circular that had barred one of Malaysia's key civil workforce from politics.

The announcement came ahead of an election widely expected to take place later this year. It will have millions of new voters after the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years old.

Datuk Seri Ismail said further guidelines on the matter will be released later.

However, activists, analysts and parents are urging caution and calling for clearer guidelines instead of giving teachers carte blanche to decide on their extent of political participation.

"The point is they should not compromise or abandon their core job - which is to educate," said Dr Jeniri Amir, a senior fellow at the Malaysian Council of Professors, an academic collective.

Dr Jeniri said there remain questions as to why teachers were allowed to be in politics after being prohibited for many years.

"Teachers in the civil service tend to be supportive of the government of the day, so they can influence the students they are educating," Dr Jeniri told The Straits Times.

He pointed out that with the new lowered voting age, teachers are also likely to play a major role in educating the next generation of voters on politics.

"Maybe they can help provide political literacy and share their thoughts, but there must be guidelines on the extent of their involvement (in politics)," he added.

Parents have also expressed concern and called for teachers who choose to be in politics to separate their political ideologies from classroom duties.

"Young minds are easily influenced, and thus I feel they should leave politics out of education, at least until the kids are at university," said a former teacher who wanted to be known only as Madam Joyce, 36.

The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP), while welcoming the move, also urged teachers not to neglect their essential duties when being involved in politics.

NUTP chief Aminuddin Awang said on Saturday that these teachers should not misuse the positions they hold in political parties for their personal gains.

As at 2020, the Education Ministry said that there were 416,743 teachers in primary and secondary schools.

Civil servants generally have several restrictions barring their active participation in politics. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said in 2019 that civil servants can be members of political parties but were not allowed to hold high positions in their parties.

Civil servants, including teachers, have long been regarded as a secure vote bank for the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and its leading component party Umno, where Mr Ismail is vice-president.

"When I left my school, most of the teachers were supporting (former premier) Najib (Razak from Umno)," said Madam Joyce, who is a parent of two primary school pupils.

BN's 61-year rule of Malaysia ended after a historic loss at the 2018 election. It was replaced by the Pakatan Harapan administration, which collapsed in 2020 due to mass defections.

Penang Deputy Chief Minister II P. Ramasamy, who is from the opposition Democratic Action Party, said on Sunday (Jan 23) that Umno is bolstering its ranks by attracting teachers into its fold ahead of the looming polls.

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