The Penang education department director has ordered schools in the state not to participate in Merdeka parades or celebrations organised by the state government until approval is received from the federal education ministry.
I contacted the Penang education department to find out if this directive was genuine.
At first I received the runaround over the phone as no one in the department was willing to go on record to confirm or deny that a directive had been issued.
After several phone calls, they eventually confirmed that the 20 August letter addressed to school principals from the Penang education department director was indeed released by the communications section of the department.
I finally managed to get through to the director, Osman Hussain.
He confirmed that the a letter had been issued, but did I read the ending? “The prohibition is only until approval is obtained from the federal education ministry. Education comes under the federal level.”
When asked why federal approval was required, he responded. “Do you know what the state level theme is? It’s Bersih (Clean).”
“Do you know what the federal theme is? It’s Sehati, Sejiwa (One Heart, One Soul).”
“The Bersih theme is sensitive; so that is why we are seeking federal approval.”
“We are telling the schools jangan pandai-pandai and jump in before we get approval from the ministry.” Osman added that federal approval had been given in previous years for Penang schools to participate in the state-level Merdeka celebrations even though the federal and state themes were different.
On these occasions, the co-curriculum unit of the Penang education department would invite schools to take part in the Penang Merdeka celebrations, and school bands would then participate.
But this year, the state government’s Merdeka theme is Bersih, Cekap, Amanah (Clean, Efficient, Trustworthy), which seems to have ruffled the feathers of the federal bureaucrats in the Penang Education Department. (Bersih is “sensitive”, you know.) That is an irony as the slogan was originally introduced with much fanfare by the federal-level Mahathir administration in the 1980s.
Bersih 2.0, on the other hand, is the name of a civil society coalition for clean and fair elections. The coalition is holding its fourth major rally in eight years dubbed Bersih 4 in the two days before Merdeka Day. Bersih 4 rallies are being held in KL, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu as well as in a string of major cities around the world.
Since 2008, schools in Penang have had to navigate between the education ministry, which is under the BN-led federal government, and the Pakatan-led Penang state government. Penang schools have been unable to invite state government leaders for their official functions. They were understood to have been disallowed from flying their flags at half mast after legendary lawyer and opposition icon Karpal Singh’s passing. Even distributing forms to students to apply for state government aid could land school staff in hot soup.
The larger issue is, education should be decentralised to the respective states instead of being heavily centralised in Putrajaya.