GEORGE TOWN, June 6 — The constitutional guarantee of free speech, assembly and association extends to all Malaysians, including minors, a lawyer contended after school children joined a protest against climate change.
Sharmila Sekaran, who is also chairman of Voice of the Children (VoC), said this meant that preventing a citizen, including children, from joining a protest was tantamount to denying them their constitutional rights.
"There is no age limit in the right to freedom of assembly in the Federal Constitution, so this means it is a right guaranteed to all Malaysians from zero-year-old babies to a 120-year-old person," she told Malay Mail in a telephone interview.
Under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, Malaysian citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, however, prohibits those aged below 15 from participating in a peaceful assembly. It is also an offence to bring a child to a peaceful assembly. Children are only allowed to participate in religious assemblies, funeral processions, assemblies related to custom, and assemblies approved by the minister.
Sharmila said a peaceful protest should not be equated with a threat against the government of the day.
Commenting on the state education department’s actions against a school in Penang for allowing its students to take part in a climate change protest last month, she said those in power seemed to have the wrong concept of peaceful protests.
“This was why they were against students attending protests, this was why the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) was created, it was to stop students from joining politics and speaking their minds,” Sharmila said.
The state education department has demanded a full report from SJK (T) Sungai Ara to explain why 11 students from the primary school, who were accompanied by their parents, took part in a protest in Bayan Baru on May 24 against climate change.
News portal Malaysiakini reported Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching as saying Tuesday that no action would be taken against the children, while Penang State Education Department deputy director Abdul Rashid Abdul Samad was quoted saying there was “no issue”.
Sharmila said the government, including the current administration, must change its view of public demonstrations.
Allowing students to take part in peaceful protests of their own free will was part of educating them about the democratic process, she explained.
“Instead of stopping students from taking part in protests, the education department should be looking at strengthening schools and ensuring the civic education included participating in protests and how to take part in protests,” she said.
Sharmila said safe spaces should be created for minors to express their views on issues affecting them and encouraged to actively participate in their community.
When children are allowed to take part in such protests in a safe space, they will learn how to voice up and make themselves heard in a peaceful manner, she said.
“Children not taught the democratic process will become thugs when they grow up... because when they don’t agree to something, they will show their displeasure in a destructive way such as by throwing petrol bombs, this was because they didn’t know there were other ways,” she said.
Other than joining in peaceful protests, children could also be taught that they can speak out by writing to their state representative, their parliamentarian or even the prime minister.
She said protests were not the only way to be heard, but having a group of people voicing up against the same cause was more effective than a single letter from one individual, which would likely be ignored and buried.
Over the last week, a Penang Island City councillor accused non-governmental groups of “exploiting underaged children” by using them in the Climate Change protest that encompassed the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).
The councillor, Vino Dini Chandragason, urged the police and authorities to investigate the matter and criticised SJK (T) Sungai Ara for allowing its students to take part in the protest while wearing the school T-shirts. The rally at a Ramadan bazaar was organised by Klimate Action Utara Malaysia (KAUM) and Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY) on May 24.
The Climate Change protest was held in line with the Global Climate Strike movement, also known as Fridays for Future, when reportedly hundreds of thousands of school students worldwide walked out of class to urge their respective governments to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The global movement was inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who had held weekly protest against climate change.
According to the Fridays for Future Facebook page, more than 1.8 million young people from 2350 cities of 125 countries took part in the Global Strike for Climate on May 24.