KUALA LUMPUR, July 4 — Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok insisted today she was not restricting academic freedom by criticising an international school over a student performance that portrayed palm oil negatively.
The minister clarified that she was instead expressing her frustration at international schools’ alleged refusal to engage with the local palm oil industry that was attempting to convey its side of the issue.
“On the contrary, time and again we receive complaints from some parents that some teachers in some international schools are spreading anti-palm oil messages to students in their classes.
“Even the current episode was brought to our attention by a concerned parent of a child attending the said school,” she said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Kok lashed out at an international school here for holding a student performance on the negative impact of the palm oil industry.
The event took place while Kok and her ministry are waging a campaign to defend palm oil against a European Union-led movement to reduce consumption over sustainability concerns arising from the cultivation of oil palms.
The EU is proposing to prohibit palm oil in biofuels by 2021 and a complete phasing-out of the commodity ten years after that.
Palm oil is a critical commodity for Malaysia as the country is the world’s second-largest producer after Indonesia.
Today, Kok explained that it was her duty to protect the image of palm oil but said she was not closed off to opposing opinions about the commodity.
She also acknowledged the environmental harms that occurred in the past as a result of large-scale oil palm cultivations, adding that she was not seeking to deny this.
The minister said she was only asking that all parties maintain neutrality in the matter and be open to both sides of the debate.
“Such openness will allow them to better understand the challenges faced by the small farmers, efforts made by the government and the oil palm industry players on many matters including those related to improved sustainable cultivation and conservation.”
Kok also stressed that the local palm oil industry was undergoing reforms to meet sustainability goals including the preservation of forests and wildlife that are threatened by the monoculture cultivation.
She then offered to engage with the management of the international school with a view on informing them of the sustainability efforts the local palm oil industry has undertaken.
“Only with such open dialogues can we even think of bridging the gaps that divide our understanding about this commodity that is the lifeline of many small farmers in our country,” she said.
Kok’s criticism of the international school has moved non-governmental and green groups to in turn attack her for allegedly stifling academic freedom.
Yesterday, the Peka Malaysia environmental advocacy group defended the students by saying their performance was only critical of “unsustainable palm oil” rather than the commodity universally.