Budget 2021 has allocated RM50.4 billion for schools and education, or 15.6% of total government expenditure. While a large portion of the budget traditionally goes towards teacher emoluments, some highlights warrant mention.
Following through on the parliamentary budget debate speech on Nov 16 by former education minister Dr Maszlee Malik, there does not appear to be a master plan to address “lost time” due to Covid-19 in spite of data provided by the World Bank, World Economic Forum, Unicef and Unesco, among others,or to take heed of guidelines from the World Health Organization on the reopening of schools.
It is estimated that with the pandemic, as many as one million students may require free meals, from 600,000 before. The milk programme, which was riddled with allegations of mismanagement in the past, has now been revived with a RM420 million budget. Questions have also been raised as to why RM725 million has been budgeted for only 50 dilapidated schools, compared with a RM650.2 million allocation for 534 schools last year.
While 36.9% of students do not enjoy connectivity at home, TVOkey was launched to fill this gap with an initial two hours a day of teaching. A vendor was awarded RM2 million to produce 800 educational content programmes by October. In the meantime, there does not appear to be a budget for teacher training to conduct online classes.
How can the rakyat be assured this time that the education budget will be put to good use for our children? The Auditor-General, in his annual report, almost always reprimands the Ministry of Education.
We now know that in 2015, a company called Jepak Holdings was awarded a project to secure a solar hybrid photovoltaic integrated system and the maintenance and operation of diesel generator sets for 369 rural schools in Sarawak worth RM1.25 billion through direct negotiations with the ministry. To date, the project has yet to begin.
The change in government during the May 2018 14th general election exposed wrongdoings by politicians taking advantage of the prized education budget, which should rightly benefit our school-going children but instead, get diverted for other motives.
On Nov 29, 2018, former education minister Mahdzir Khalid gave his statement to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on allegations of solicitation and receipt of kickbacks related to the said solar hybrid project.
On Feb 6, 2020, the Kuala Lumpur High Court heard that former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had exerted pressure on the education ministry to award the project to a Sarawak politician. On Feb 18, 2020, a former secretary-general of the Ministry of Education, Madinah Mohamad, admitted that although she did not agree with the said solar project as it did not meet set guidelines, she had conceded as the former prime minister had ordered it to be speeded up, which included forgoing the ministry’s technical study of the proposed project.
On Aug 3, 2020, the High Court heard that the former education minister had allegedly asked for 20%, or RM250 million, from the contractor as gratification for securing the above project, which was subsequently reduced to RM60 million. The former education minister denies this as the trial continues.
The question that arises is whether this landmark court case, although ongoing and still requiring a judgment, is enough to ensure that such shady dealings do not repeat itself.
The practice of centralisation of contracts at the Ministry of Education — which may be for valid reasons — seems to have caused some contracts to be over-inflated. One example is our science laboratories, where many repair jobs have not been completed on time. There have been cases where students were unable to use the laboratories for experiments for several years.
On a smaller scale, parent-teacher associations to which I belong, which have been told to expect a certain allocation for minor builds or maintenance of existing assets, often get services of lower value than the amount promised. A teacher in a residential school, for example, once told me that pillows supplied to students there were over-priced.
The 2019 Auditor-General’s Report, not surprisingly, highlighted missing public funds and movable assets at the education ministry, and also noted that it took as long as 10 years to realise it in some cases. It is the responsibility of civil servants to ensure there is no abuse of power or corruption in the ministry. Do not be afraid.
Although education gets a high allocation every year, why does the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development say Malaysian students are three years behind their peers in other countries? If contracts tendered with the Ministry of Education are competitively priced, with reasonable profits, there should be enough funds to go around for all aspects of education, especially for teaching and learning.
Let us spend more on teacher training and continuous professional development in order for our students to catch up with their peers. Then only will the huge budget be justifiable. Where leakages can be stopped, the added value reaped should go towards raising the quality of education. Sadly, if leakages continue, it will only raise the cost of educating a child, and the impact could leave many schoolchildren behind.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders