Ex-Malaysian high schoolers sue teacher for his absenteeism – and win

Iman Muttaqin Yusof and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
Ex-Malaysian high schoolers sue teacher for his absenteeism – and win Students wear face masks and maintain social distancing at a classroom to guard against COVID-19 during the first day of the reopening of their high school in Putrajaya, Malaysia, June 24, 2020.
[Vincent Thian/AP Photo]

In an unprecedented case, three former high school students in Malaysia have successfully sued their former teacher for his chronic absenteeism which, they argued, deprived them of a solid education.

The judge at the Kota Kinabalu High Court in Sabah awarded the ex-students a total of 150,000 ringgit (U.S. $33,021) in damages for the psychological harm caused to them by their English teacher’s nearly seven-month absence when they were 16 years old. 

The Malaysian government, in addition to the teacher, is among the five defendants that have to jointly pay the damages, according to the ruling handed down on Tuesday.

High Court Judge Leonard David Shim ruled that the defendants had abdicated their responsibilities under the Education Act 1996.

“Each student will receive 30,000 ringgit ($6,604) as nominal compensation for the loss of opportunity to obtain good grades in English and loss of a good opportunity in their lives to receive better education in the future,” Shim ruled in a 74-page judgment made available via e-review on Wednesday. 

“[A]nd an additional 20,000 ringgit ($4,402) will be awarded for aggravated costs, considering the emotional and psychological trauma caused by the teacher’s absenteeism, leading to hurt and humiliation.”

The other three defendants were the students’ then- principal of S.M.K. Taun Gusi, the high school in Kota Belud, the director-general of education and the federal education minister.

BenarNews contacted federal Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek for comment, but did not immediately hear back.

The students who brought the suit, Rusiah Sabdarin, Nur Natasha Allisya Hamali and Calvina Angayung, are now 22 years old. 

They had filed the case in December 2020, accusing their teacher of a seven-month absence from his teaching duties in 2017, when they were students in the fourth form, which corresponds to the 10th grade.

The students’ lawsuit said the teacher’s absence led to their failure in the English exam.

Before they went to court, the students in 2017 had spoken about the issue to the school principal, the state administration and the Ministry of Education, but no action was taken, they said.

(From left) Former high school students Calvina Angayung, Nur Natasha Allisya Hamali, Rusiah Sabdarin, who won a suit against their former English teacher for his chronic absenteeism, are seen in an undated photo with their lawyer, Sherzali Herza Asli. [Courtesy via Facebook@officialtiadaguru]

Rusiah, one of the three plaintiffs, said she hoped the defendants would now take student complaints seriously.

“I hope all students will have courage to voice their concerns and dissatisfaction when their rights as students are violated,” she said in a statement after the court ruling. 

“I hope that all parties involved, regardless of whether they are from the school or education authorities, will consistently monitor the presence of teachers in schools.” 

Calvina, another student who sued, said justice had been served and a precedent set for similar cases.

“It remains fresh in my memories when our teacher kept going absent, so much so that many of us failed the English subject,” she said in a statement.

“With the decision, I feel grateful knowing that my rights are acknowledged and respected by the court.”

The lawsuit was part of a campaign led by Tiada.Guru, which calls itself a whistleblower-led organization. It advocates for students’ right to a good education and raises awareness about teacher absenteeism, particularly in the rural areas of Sabah, which is on Borneo island and is one of Malaysia’s poorest states.

“The victory of former students Rusiah, Calvina, and Nur Natasha has set a new course for justice, unity, and progress in Malaysia,” Tiada.Guru campaign said in a statement on Wednesday. 

“Whistleblowers risk their lives to ensure the government follows its own laws. Malaysians everywhere, but especially in rural communities have lost decades of progress because of internal investigations and internal enforcement.”


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