“How could they? Imagine having to use different stairs and eat at separate tables…you call that education?” commented a friend when the news came out in the dailies.
There are good headmasters, and then there are other categories of headmasters. The latest group are called the ‘little napoleons’ because they run the co-ed schools like a military camp, separating students based on gender to the extend of requiring students to study at separate classes, use separate staircases and eat at separate tables during lunch break. And when the news leaked out, the Education Ministry had to send officers to conduct investigations and declare that those were school-made rules, not directions from the government. And the official report stated that the rules have been abolished in those schools.
Which comes to one question: What have the teachers and parents been doing all these while?
Surely the teachers and parents of those culprit schools know the going-ons but they prefer to keep quiet. Do they remain silent due to administrative pressures (talk too much and we’ll transfer you to a rural school nobody wants to go to) or because they too, have supported the new ruling? Headmasters, headmistresses (I’m being gender-sensitive) and principals, as well as the senior administrative assistant teachers, have great powers at schools. Their words can be considered law for who dares to go against the individuals who decide how much salary you’d bring home next year? And a new head at school is always received with great anxiety. Get a strict no-nonsense super-principal who is eying the best chair at the state education department and every teacher will hurriedly fill up the transfer form, because there’d suddenly be a dozen or so new extra duties for teachers at school. Have a religious principal and there’d soon be daily doa recitals every morning and on Friday afternoons, and all female students will be required to adhere strictly to the Islamic code of dressing.
“I don’t understand. Why do they want to bring down the cross which has been placed on the wall for centuries, and replace them with those Arabic verses? Why can’t they put both up on the wall instead?” demanded a Christian mother who sent her daughter to a missionary school, run by a Muslim Malay principal.
“Not another mural with Arabic words. This place is beginning to look like a Islamic school,” groaned a Chinese teacher at a national school with 80% Muslim Malay students. “Can you blame the non-Muslim parents for not sending their children here?”
“Do you think the children actually read all these Quranic verses on the walls? The money for the paint can be better used to buy books for the students,” said another critic.
I’ve been there, experienced it, seen it and pray that I won’t have to go through it again for the rest of my life. It’s quite ugly when only one form of religion is considered superior to others. When the whole school community is grouped at one compound and only the Islam doa is recited loudly for 5 minutes while those who profess to other religions have to keep silent and listen, some may even call it a form of discrimination. Any non-Muslim student who dare to whisper to friends during the doa recitals even when they are bored listening to verses they do not understand will most probably get punished by the discipline teacher or the prefects. Too bad. When the whole school enrolment sit at the school hall to listen to an Islamic talk by the ustaz, the non-Muslim students are forced to join along and listen quietly because administrators consider it easier to manage the students if they are grouped together. They had not bothered to ask if the non-Muslim students want to listen to those talks. While I agree that the children should be exposed to Islamic teachings, I do not think it is appropriate to force the religion down their throats for the whole of their schooling life. In fact I don’t think it is a good idea for those non-Muslim students to be over-exposed to Islam without their consent. They might end up hating Islam for the wrong reasons.
School is the place where our young get education. It is an institution of learning and for our children to assimilate into the real world. Indeed, religion has an important role to play but when one religion is being highlighted well above the beliefs of others who study under the same roof, it is quite distressing. We should teach our youngsters about respect. While it is fine to strive to be a good practising Muslim, in a multi-racial multi-religious nation like Malaysia, we have to be sensitive to the rights of other students who are non-Muslims. One way is to give them the rights to practise their own religious beliefs like silent prayers, and wearing their religious talisman. We also need to educate our youngsters on the correct way to get along with people from the opposite gender, while at the same time, following the Islamic code of proper behaviour. Segregation is not the answer. However, many overbearing adults of authority insist on enforcing these Islamic dressing and code of behaviour on youngsters, especially girls without actually teaching them the why's and how's. Indirectly, they can make Islam seem too remote, rigid and pressurizing for the young minds at these institutions. So can you blame the confused young ones if they complain and rebel?
“Kak, my principal forced all the girls to stay for an extra hour after school on Fridays to recite the surah Yassin, because he said that will help to catch the school thieves. I don’t see why we have to do that. I think it’s silly and a waste of time,” complained a 14-year-old Malay Muslim girl.
“My daughter is only nine. She hasn’t got her menses, so can’t she be exempted from wearing the tudung?” asked a Muslim mother when the ustazah punished the girl for not covering her hair at school.
“We can’t have a cheer-leading team this year. The new headmistress said it’s not suitable for girls to be involved in this activity. Heck, we wear track pants, not mini skirts,” complained another girl.
“We are told that we can have a Chinese lion dance but no drum is allowed. Imagine a lion dance without the drums. So stupid la,” stormed an angry boy.
“ How can I trust the school from turning my son into a Muslim if everyday he hears the doa being recited aloud? Why should my son who is not a Muslim be forced to listen? There’s no way I’m sending my son to the national school,” reasons a Chinese Buddhist mother who drives her son daily to a crowded Chinese vernacular school 20 km away from home although the national school is just beside her house.
“My son came home crying and refuses to go back to school. He said that the Malay boys told him that their ustaz said that my son will burn in hell because he does not pray to Allah,” sighs an Indian mother who sent her young 7-year-old son to a national school.
“ If we are caught using the stairs for boys, we will have to pay 20sen as forfeit and later we will be punished for accumulating too many demerit points,” explained a school girl about how the school implemented the segregated use of staircases.
Thank God I am no longer a school student. I don’t think I’d ever see Islam in a positive light if I had been subjected to such rigid way of school life proposed by over-zealous educators, using Islam as the reason for their extra rules. Perhaps they think they are correct; but don’t they think they might be wrong too?
In the 70s and 80s, my friends and I did not have any Quranic verses on our missionary-run school walls. We didn’t have to attend any Islamic talks about Maal Hijrah, Ramadhan etc at school halls during school hours (The only talk we did attend was about National day, 1986 and all of us agreed it was dead boring!) .Only a small number of us wore the tudung to schools then but we did not practise discrimination. We didn’t become mat rempits and minah rempits. Most of us do end up wearing the tudung at our own accord after we left school. And because we had genuine friendships regardless of our religious backgrounds, we learn a lot about each other’s religion sand culture indirectly.
However today, despite all those efforts being done to create an Islamic environment at national primary and secondary schools, the overall discipline among students has deteriorated. So what is actually wrong with our schools?