Is the provision in the IGC overriding the Education Act and the Federal Constitution with regard to the use of English in schools in Sabah?

By Remy Majangkim, MA63 Activist, Tutor and Historian


KOTA KINABALU: Good day, everyone, and I wish you a great day ahead.

In preparation for the formation of Malaysia, there was a heavy discussion between the Government of North Borneo, Sarawak, and the Federation of Malaya finalised in the Inter Government Committee or IGC in 1962.

The Inter Government Committee or IGC was found after Lord Cobbold visited North Borneo & Sarawak and sought for the formation of Malaysia in February towards April 1962. In the same year, Lord Landsdowne was tasked to create safeguards for the crown colony that covered, religious freedom, education, representatives in the federal level, control of immigration, indigenous rights, citizenship and the State Constitution. The British were represented with 8 delegates, Malayan with 20 delegates, Sarawak with 29 delegates, North Borneo with 17 delegates and two observers from Brunei with Chief Justice of North Borneo, Brunei & Sarawak.

In this opinion piece, we are talking about education. What is education? Education is the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally preparing oneself or others for a mature life.

Before the formation of Malaysia, North Borneo, and Sarawak, and Singapore used the British education system. The education system started from elementary, primary and secondary school. The methodology between the 1950s and early 1970 was “Chalk and Talk”, with students facing the teacher. Students would have a note book, a pencil and your witty attitude in class. It is also noted that we have to write what was written on the board and unintentionally improve our penmanship. The basic education then was spelling, writing, reading, and arithmetic, all of it in one language, English.

In the IGC report, it was concluded that education is listed under Federal List 13 (a) (for North Borneo &; Sarawak only) under the Federal List, meaning that the Federal Government has their jurisdiction in the matter. But it comes with sets of conditions set out in paragraph 17 of the IGC report. So what’s in paragraph 17? It reads as follows:

  1. Education
    Certain aspects of religious education have been dealt with under the heading “Religion”
    In addition: –

a) Although Education (item 13 (a) of the Federal List in the Ninth Schedule) will be a federal subject, the present policy and system of administration of education in North Borneo and Sarawak (including their present Ordinance) should be undisturbed and remain under the control of the Government of the State until that Government otherwise agrees. In particular :-

I) the present policy in the Borneo States regarding the use of English should continue;

ii) Knowledge of the Malay language should not be require as a qualification for any educational opportunity, at such time as the State Government concerned considers that sufficient provision has been to teach Malay in all schools in the State;

iii) there should be no application to the Borneo States of any Federal requirements regarding religious education;

if) State provisions for the special position of the Indigenous people should continue to apply;

v) the Directors of Education in the Borneo State, who would be officers serving in the Federal posts and responsible to the Federal Minister of Education should carry out much the same duties as they do at the present in consultation with State Government concerned;

vi) to enable local wishes to be fully consulted and taken into account as far as possible, the Directors of Education of the Borneo States should continue to be advised by the respective existing Board of Education and local Education Committees; and

vii) in the case of Sarawak, the local authorities should continue to be used as agents for primary education; and

b) when expansion of higher education facilities was being considered by the Malaysian Government, the requirement of the Borneo States should be given special consideration, and the desirability of locating some of the institutions in the Borneo States should be borne in mind.

(Excerpt from Inter Government Committee or IGC)

What is interesting is that the use of the English language “should continue” or, in other words, “abide”. Therefore, the Federal Government could not change the medium of teaching beside the English language. Before introducing into the state, the provision of the national language (Malay language) of the state must be sufficient (point ii) or ideally used. So it can be said that the English language in school can exist concurrently. It is encapsulated that the Borneo education system through changes in language and improvement of the education system must be consulted by the local wishes and the respective director of education of each state. The IGC committee had agreed on these safeguards and other issues.

Fast forward to the present time, all teaching medium was converted to Bahasa Malaysia or now known as Bahasa Melayu. The purging of the English language was done in the early 1970’s and continues to do so until the present time. Keep in mind the IGC report was signed as part of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement treaty. The current education system in Malaysia is constitutionally flawed, without acknowledging the special position of North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak, which leads to several breaches of an international agreement. Therefore, this provision in the IGC overrides the Education Act and the Federal Constitution. The current Sabah State Government and the Federal Government need to make amends revert back to its original intention.

Now, imagine for a while if the Malaysian government continued to use English in our education system, we would have different generations after the formation of Malaysia.

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