APRIL 18 — It is the easiest activity to ignore and not get penalised in our public schools. Now, they’ve made it easier. Even rewards people to loathe it.

The price is paid way down the line and it is the other ministry which is going to pick up the tab.

What’s weighing down this columnist this week?


A silly distraction, exercise.

Minister Fadhlina Sidek told parents to file an online complaint if schoolchildren are made to endure outdoor activities during the present heatwave two days ago. It comes from a place of personal concern but ends up cutting teachers — who understand the importance of physical exercise — off at their knees.

But then again, do you need to bother with limbs when you have eschewed physical exertions?


Several things have to be established before returning to the minister, and her knee jerk reaction.

To that which supports her fears, beforehand.

The heatwave is real and heat exhaustion can turn fatal. Parents are correct to worry.

Our public schools use fans at best, and are not air-conditioned. In packed classrooms, a meaner sun starts to take a toll on students and teachers. Having physical exercise before, in the middle or the end of the school day compounds the situation further.

There are parts of Malaysia where the heat is very unbearable presently.

But here are other elements that help paint a fuller picture of the situation.

For the vast majority of Malaysian children, public school is where they exercise. It does not happen elsewhere for good reasons.

For the vast majority of Malaysian children, public school is where they exercise. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
For the vast majority of Malaysian children, public school is where they exercise. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

From latchkey children to low-cost flat dwellers, various reasons like security, absence of supervision, disinterested parents and lack of facilities or space lead to many of our young holed up at home after school.

For children above a certain age, if they do not run in school, they likely never do. A cardiologist or endocrinologist is unnecessary to point out the long-term implications of continued sedentary life from adolescence.

Couple it with the national passion for mamak restaurants and franchises which specialise in sugar, a nightmare scenario has long unfolded before the education ministry’s recent recommendations.

That limited exercise in school may invariably be the only counterforce to couch-snacking and video game marathons.

And for those who make me out to be an alarmist and point out these restrictions are only for the hot days, think again. The increased temperature is a norm rather than the exception in a time of accelerated climate change. More hot than not.

Then there is the make-up of teachers.

Like the students, they also are from a generation of sedentary life worshippers. Why walk to the store when you can order from the app is the clarion call of cohorts young and old, if to put it crudely.

The majority of teachers are quite happy not to be assigned with additional chores like managing students’ physical exercise schedules; empty fields and quiet courts do not upset them too much.

In my time in school, we had trouble getting teachers to “sit-in” to sanction activities. That’s from the last millennium. It’s far more dire today.

So, when the minister connects danger and physical exercise, and urges major restraint aided by parents’ complaints, the teachers oblige quite willingly. Why stick our necks out for sports?

It further isolates the minority of teachers, often former athletes. They ask for more sports, and the weather situation worsens their cause.

Heard this twisted rationale? About the guy who refused to let his child learn to swim because she could drown. He said, she never needs to be in water, that’s the best way to avoid a drowning.

Extend that to exercise and the guy and his army of supporters would say inactive children are merely saving themselves from the searing heat. Why risk one death, when millions can be fine without exercise? Except that is not true. Far more are harmed, it just does not occur immediately but when it does later the situation is rarely reversible.

The minister is fair to point out a feedback mechanism, and it’s vital.

But perhaps more vital is autonomy for schools and teachers to decide objectively how to handle heatwaves and balance them with the need for physical exercise. To assume that the teachers do not know better than the minister is ill-advised. They are on location and have the information to decide.

The ministry spends a lot of money on teacher training, it is in instances like these for them to trust their own system.

That they understand they are primary supervisors of the student. Also, that while academic training is critical to advance students after graduation, physical care of the body matters.

It is the job to balance the various components. Provide sensible regulations and let them apply them judiciously to achieve all the objectives of schooling, not just some.

Teachers cannot fear that if any one of the hundreds of students under them complains, an inquest will be underway after the state education department emails the district education department following from Putrajaya’s alert.

There are thousands of schools and millions of students.

Conditions differ from school to school, and parents and teachers have to work hand in hand. Trust that any heavy-handedness or brazen vindictive physical punishments are spotted at the community level.

What needs to be emphasised more, far more than present, is how exercise is wantonly discarded and many using the climate as an excuse to nix it.

Policy makers do a disservice to future generations not to debate the potential losses without exercise and how disappointing the present situation was even before these heatwaves were factored.

In my old school we are told to aspire to be scholars, sportsmen and gentlemen. As far as advice goes, not the worst to be considered by our MoE administrators, all the way to the minister's office.

It is irony, or really a dark joke, that if it was not for the heatwave — mandating students to put on sports attire rather than uniforms to class — it would not be evident how out of shape most of our teenagers are.

It’s not their fault, the adults are letting them down.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.