No ‘Kunyit’ programmes in schools, education ministry says

Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching (fourth from right) reads out excerpts from a book on challenges faced by Orang Asli women with some of the writers.

KUALA LUMPUR: Following the recent outcry over the “kunyit” gender awareness programme organised by a school in Sabah, the education ministry today made it clear that it doesn’t approve of any such initiative.

The ministry’s response comes after a recent FMT report in which the principal of the school in question apologised and admitted to a lack of foresight in publishing the breakdown of the programme in its 2017 yearbook.

Speaking to FMT, Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching said the ministry had asked the school to apologise because it was not permitted to organise such programmes. She responded with “no” when asked if this was allowed.

“Kunyit” is considered a derogatory term for gays. Critics have since said the programme was a disguised version of “gay conversion therapy”, a technique used to shame and force people to change their sexuality.

The programme was part of the school guidance counsellor’s efforts to “find a way to tackle the issue of gender awareness” among the school’s “soft boys”. Fifteen boys participated in the programme in 2017.

Although the programme is no longer in place, it faced scrutiny from netizens and MPs who slammed it for its aims to tackle male students’ desire to “consider themselves as ‘kunyit'”, calling it a “weakness”.

Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching.

Earlier, Teo delivered a speech at the launch of a book by 18 Orang Asli women from all around the country titled, “Kami Pun Ada Hak Bersekolah: Wanita Orang Asli Bersuara” at Universiti Malaya here.

The book, which was published by the Freedom Film Network, highlights the girls’ experiences and challenges at school — bullying and discrimination are key themes — and their dreams and aspirations.

During a book reading session today, some of the Orang Asli women read out excerpts of their stories. One of her them said her schoolmates made fun of her and labelled her “weird” for supposedly eating frogs.

Another woman said she was teased regularly as “stinky”. Her school uniform was also regularly scribbled on and torn by her classmates. She said she eventually dropped out because of the treatment meted out to her.

Commenting on this trend, Teo said bullying among school children, the Orang Asli included, was something the ministry was looking into, citing the need for love and respect to be brought back to all public schools.

“If the school environment is not friendly, happy, and there is no love and mutual respect for those in the school community, bullying will continue to happen,” she said, adding Putrajaya was pushing for a happy environment.

Teo (fifth from right) poses with some of the writers after launching the book with the Canadian High Commissioner to Malaysia, Julia Bentley (fourth from left).

When asked about the concerns of those who were bullied and did not feel safe to voice against it, Teo said they must lodge reports with the authorities for them to intervene.

“As I always say, if there is no evidence and no report, there is no way for me to go in and even investigate because if I take action without any evidence, it is unfair to those who have been complained about.”

The Kulai MP also said that the average attendance rate for Orang Asli school-going students this year was 87.35%, an increase of 0.21% from 2017, which she said was laudable but could still be improved.

She also said her ministry was now looking into the transition of Orang Asli students from Standard Six to Form 1. Last year, 76.67% of Orang Asli students entered secondary school. Now, the ministry is targeting a 77% rate.

Speaking to the press later, Teo said the ministry still had a special programme that increased the chances of Orang Asli to attend public universities with lower academic requirements.

Meanwhile, commenting on the foreign minister’s recent remark that Putrajaya was considering allowing refugees to go to public schools, Teo said the Cabinet had yet to make a call on the matter.

“I’m aware of the statement, but I think it’s for the Cabinet to make a decision,” she said.

Refugees, such as those from the Rohingya and Yemeni communities, are not allowed to go to national schools or work legally in the country as they lack citizenship and documentation.

Recently, however, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said Putrajaya was considering plans to allow refugees access to public schools, hospitals and the workforce, a U-turn in the government’s policy.

Saifuddin also said Putrajaya was open to proposals from civil society organisations to provide Yemeni children formal education and opportunities to work here, saying they were better at doing it.

On the recognition of Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), she said her ministry was still waiting for the report from the special committee formed to look into the matter.

The committee has until March to get back to us, she said, adding it hasn’t asked for an extension yet.