Home Commentary The wild west of Malaysia’s tahfiz religious schools

The wild west of Malaysia’s tahfiz religious schools

Child abuse and murder highlight religious schools in Malaysia operating without licence or accountability.

An ugly incident in a school in Malaysia recently has re-ignited a wider debate and thrown the spotlight on an opaque sector of national education in the Southeast Asian country.

On Nov. 15, two 13-year-old boys appeared before a magistrate in the eastern peninsular state of Pahang, charged with murder.

The prosecution alleges the two boys beat a fellow 7-year-old pupil to death in their dormitory at a residential school.

Aside from the shocking nature of the crime, the operations of tahfiz schools — the type of residential schools the boys attended — has come under scrutiny once again.

Tahfiz is a form of religious school in Malaysia that has exploded in popularity in recent years, while attracting a lot of negative attention along the way.

In contrast to the traditional view of religious schooling across the globe — a structured education in tandem with spiritual guidance — tahfiz schools are not obliged to provide any formal education at all.

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While some schools do provide that structured education, many do not so, as you can imagine, quality varies widely.

In some schools, pupils do little more than memorise the Quran.

There are at least 1,200 tahfiz nationwide, with 900 or so opening in the years 2011-2017, more than 600 of which were not registered with any government department, agency or ministry.

In those years, the Najib Razak administration grew close to Saudi Arabia (both countries are Sunni majority) and with that new friendship came extraordinary sums of money for schools, mosques and, most important, influence.

The government used this influence to ratchet up anti-Shia rhetoric nationwide, securing its position to use Islam as a political weapon and, among other things, demonise the Shia minority.

The other ethnic groups knew well enough not to get involved when the flak wasn’t coming in their direction.

Meanwhile, the murder once again brought to the fore the stark realisation that no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors of these private institutions.

Right now, it appears anyone can buy a plot of land, build a tahfiz and start charging willing parents to receive their children.

Parents are more than willing, too. Malaysian state education has been in steady decline for decades, which prompts parents to seek a better future for their children in the private sector.

Therefore, private education is arguably the booming industry in the country, registering phenomenal growth and investment over the past decade with money pouring in from China, the UK, the US and Australia.

Yet, these institutions are all required to register with the Ministry of Education and, if they are accepting Malaysian students, ensure their education meets the minimum national standard.

However, tahfiz require no such permit. They are also not required to register with the Islamic Affairs Department, but they are encouraged to do so. In fairness, many do just that.

Nevertheless, some tahfiz do not even follow basic building codes.

In September 2017, an early morning fire gutted a dormitory block in a tahfiz in Kuala Lumpur, killing 21 boys and two wardens.

While two youths later stood trial for murder, it came to light the school had not received permission to use the building from the city council because it breached fire safety regulations, but had done so anyway.

The council had not bothered to enforce its directive and — apart from the two youths facing the hangman’s noose if convicted — the authorities have not done anything since.

Exasperated by the inaction, parents of the deceased children began a civil lawsuit against the operators in June.

Grisly murders aside, the tahfiz education ‘system’, for want of a better word, has taken a fair amount of stick in recent years for child abuse, bearing in mind that corporal punishment is still legal in Malaysia.

Just last month, the attorney-general’s chambers was forced to drop a sexual abuse case at a tahfiz due to lack of evidence, much to the disgust of parents and human rights groups.

In April 2017, an 11-year-old tahfiz student was rushed to hospital in Johor after a severe beating by a warden armed with a rubber hose.

As the police investigated, it became apparent the hose was his preferred method of delivering what he saw as punitive justice on pupils for even minor infractions.

The boy later died but the man, originally held on suspicion of murder, was released without charge when the pathologist reported the boy died of leptospirosis, completely unrelated to the incident.

These woeful tales are just the tip of the iceberg in a country where crime frequently goes unreported because nothing ever comes of it or people do not want to upset the apple cart.

There is a deepening ire in urban areas, aimed at what is perceived as a shadowy quarter of the education system where children are subjected to abuse and neglect by people who flout the law for profit.

However, tahfiz remain a popular option for parents who see a supposedly wholesome spiritual education as a step up from state schools, particularly in rural areas where religious sway dwarfs that of a crumbling education system.

Even though the new government has tried to halt Saudi Arabian influence, the regulation of tahfiz — some of which are still funded by Riyadh — is a low priority, because similarly this government can ill-afford to upset the apple cart.

The Pakatan Harapan government still struggles to command respect in the rural, more conservative and religious areas, dominated by PAS, the Islamist party, now allied to the opposition.

Any significant move in this arena could ignite religious tensions and fuel PAS’s assertion that it is the only party for Muslims in Malaysia.

Given these schools’ indeterminate status and that they are not strictly accountable to any one ministry, a decision on what can be done would have to be made at cabinet level.

Yet, right now, the cabinet is reeling from too many political setbacks to even cast the issue a sideways glance.

So, if multiple cases of murder and child abuse don’t seem to be enough to effect change, what will?

Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LICAS News.

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