Malaysia’s Federal Court upholds constitutional right of vernacular schools to teach in Chinese, Tamil

Malaysia’s Federal Court has ruled that vernacular schools are constitutional in a majority two-one decision, dismissing the appeal of two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which sought to declare that the use of Chinese and Tamil languages as the medium of instruction in vernacular schools goes against the Federal Constitution.

A three-member Federal Court bench chaired by Judges Mary Lim Thiam Suan denied a leave to appeal by the Islamic Education Development Council (Mappim) and the Coalition of National Writers’ Association (Gapena), reported Sin Chew Daily.

Justice Lim and Justice Rhodzariah Bujang dismissed the application of both petitioners, while Justice Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil dissented.

This meant that the Court of Appeal’s decision on November 23, 2023, which ruled that vernacular schools in the country were constitutional, stands.

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In delivering the majority decision, Justice Lim said that the court found that Mappim and Gapena failed to meet the requirements under Section 96(a) of the Courts of Judicature Act 1964 to be granted leave to appeal on constitutional matters amended by the petitioners.

“Therefore, the application for leave to appeal is dismissed with no costs,” she said.

Before this, the two NGOs, through their lawyer Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla, submitted eight questions, consisting of six constitutional and two legal questions. However, the questions were later amended, and only one constitutional question was presented to the court.

The constitutional question was whether the medium of instruction in the teaching and learning process in national-type Chinese and Tamil schools, established under Sections 2, 17, and 28 of the Education Act 1996 (Act 550), is an official matter and subject to the obligation under Article 152(1) of the Federal Constitution, which mandates the use of the national language for all official matters.

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On December 29, 2021, High Court judge Datuk Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali (now Court of Appeal judge) dismissed the lawsuits brought by GPMS, Mappim, Gapena and Isma. GPMS did not file the appeal to the Court of Appeal.

On May 292023, the Kota Bahru High Court judicial commissioner Abazafree Mohd Abbas (now High Court judge) also ruled that the existence of vernacular schools is constitutional and he dismissed the suit filed by I-Guru.

In their suit, GPMS, Mappim, Gapena and Isma named several parties, including the Malaysian Government, Chinese education groups Dong Zong and Jiao Zong, Persatuan Thamizhar Malaysia, Persatuan Tamilar Thurunal (Perak) and four political parties – MIC, MCA, Gerakan and Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, as defendants.

This story was first published by The Star

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