KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 21 ― Razita Abdul Razak wanted her son to be educated in English but she was also keen that he get a strong foundation in religion so she sent him to an Islamic international school.
Not only did the school use a Cambridge curriculum, it also had a good Islamic studies programme.
Razita, who is a manager, and her businessman husband had their son attend the Shah Alam-based school from the ages of 14 to 17. The boy, who is monolingual due to ADHD, was more fluent in English and couldn’t cope with the Malay medium of instruction at other schools with a national syllabus.
“Being an Islamic school, Greenview emphasises on Islamic education. This is a very important foundation for kids,” Razita told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
“Since there is a choice between Islamic international school and secular international school, I would naturally select Islamic international schools due to the emphasis on Islamic studies and additional Islamic activities like group prayer sessions (solat jemaah).”
Razita, who lives in Shah Alam, is one of a growing number of affluent English-speaking Malay-Muslims who are sending their children to Islamic international schools.
For them, religion is important but at the same time, they want their children to be educated in the world’s lingua franca.
Three other Malaysian Muslim parents, who sent their children to Islamic international schools, told Malay Mail Online that English as the medium of instruction was important and that they also liked the integration of secular and religious.
Another important factor is affordability as Islamic international schools are also far more affordable than their secular counterparts.
The popularity of women’s modest wear like the tudung and arm sleeves, as well as Umno’s focus on Islam over Malay nationalism are visible signs of the rising religiosity of Malay-Muslim society here in Malaysia.
Dr Maszlee Malik, an academic from International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), said private Islamic schools that followed the national curriculum and taught additional Islamic subjects were set up in the 1980s by Muslim groups like Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) and Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), now known as Ikram.
He said such schools, which currently charge tuition fees of about RM400 to RM500 a month or about RM6,000 a year, target low middle-income Muslims. Government schools, on the other hand, only teach a single Islamic subject that some Muslim parents interviewed by Malay Mail Online say is too basic.
According to Maszlee, Islamic international schools that taught in English and followed the Cambridge curriculum, besides teaching Islamic studies, started emerging in the late 1990s. These schools charge as low as RM14,000 per annum. Secular international schools are at least five times more expensive, with annual fees ranging upwards of RM75,000.
He said Islamic international schools target high-income Muslim professionals with an “Islamic inclination.” Parents who send their children to such schools were educated in the US or UK.
“They want the best of both worlds ― an international curriculum and Islamic studies,” Maszlee told Malay Mail Online in an interview. “Most of them are English-speaking families”.
The academic said Malaysian Muslims desired more in-depth religious education for their children because of perceived crime and corruption.
“They feel society is too corrupted, too dangerous; they fear their children will become more corrupt,” he said. “The only thing to save their children is more doses of Islamic content.”
Asking questions encouraged here
Three Islamic schools with an international curriculum that Malay Mail Online interviewed ― Greenview, Idrissi School and International Islamic School (IIS) ― said they welcomed critical thinking and encouraged students to question their teachers of Islamic subjects. The schools are also open to non-Muslims.
Idrissi, a primary school in Shah Alam, focuses on love for the environment and teaches children in a homeschool environment, where they are free to learn outside the classroom, such as on a bridge over a small pond or in a makeshift “tree house.”
There is a garden where students plant herbs like mint, a few goats and chickens in sheds, and the classrooms are named “House of Love”, “House of Generosity” and “House of Kindness” among others.
Idrissi principal Adam Testad, who is Swedish, said questioning was encouraged and that students were not taught to treat Muslims and non-Muslims differently.
“In Islam, you should think, reflect and question. Prophet Abraham started with questions, like ‘Who created this?’. Let them be thinkers. When they're thinking, they'll find their way,” Testad told Malay Mail Online.
“We don’t start with ― this is how we talk to Muslims and non-Muslims. At the end of the day, it’s how you should talk to people,” he added.
Idrissi, which teaches in English with additional language subjects namely Bahasa Malaysia, Arabic and Mandarin, is open to non-Muslims too and has had enquiries from some non-Muslim parents.
“Nature Studies is a common ground for everyone to learn as with Moral Studies or Character Development,” said Testad.
The Islamic international school charges tuition fees of RM1,150 monthly and already has almost 200 students, more than 80 per cent of whom are Malaysian Muslims, including some Chinese and Indian Muslims, since it was established on January 15 last year by Zaliza Alias, her husband and some parents.
At Greenview, which also has English as the medium of instruction and follows a Cambridge curriculum where students sit for their O Levels at age 16, there are now about 400 students, 90 per cent of whom are Malaysian Muslims and are predominantly Malay, since it was established in 2010.
The private school comprising primary and secondary levels, which is based in Bangi and in a small mall in Shah Alam, is currently applying for an international license from the Education Ministry while searching for its own building for the Shah Alam branch. Most of the students are at Shah Alam.
Greenview school director Muhammad Azman Hamzah said Muslim parents preferred Islamic schools as they were afraid of bad influence from the internet.
“They feel if children have good religious education, it’ll help children not to go to unhealthy sites,” Muhammad Azman told Malay Mail Online.
Greenview principal Fatima S.A. Majeed said the school was open to non-Muslims and that if they were to enrol, they would be taught moral studies and world religions. Malay-Muslim students at Greenview, which charges RM900 to RM1,000 a month for primary school and RM1,000 to RM1,400 monthly for secondary school, mainly live in affluent neighbourhoods like Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Bangsar, Bukit Jalil and Shah Alam. Majority of their parents speak Malay at home, said Fatima.
“We encourage a lot of questions. Children have to start thinking on their own,” Fatima said, when asked about Greenview’s approach to Islamic studies. “At the secondary level, they’re required to do PowerPoint presentations and take in questions from other students”.
The Islamic curriculum at Greenview comprises various subjects, namely Quran recitation (Tajweed), Prophet Muhammad’s sayings (Hadith) the history of Prophet Muhammad and other prophets (Seerah), the memorisation of certain Quranic verses (Tahfeez), the sciences of the Quran (‘Uloomul Quran), and the sciences of the Hadith (Mustalahul Hadith). Secondary students sit for the Cambridge O Level Islamiyat, besides the Cambridge IGCSE examinations.
IIS, which has 322 students in primary and secondary, out of which five per cent are Malaysian, is one of the oldest Islamic international schools in Malaysia, founded in 1998 by IIUM lecturers in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur.
“Here, everything is integrated. You don’t have to go somewhere else after school,” IIS vice principal of academia Zaleha Omar told Malay Mail Online, referring to the afternoon Quranic class that Muslim children from government schools typically attend.
She said that many of the Malaysian parents who send their children to IIS work in the oil and gas sector, noting that the number of Malay-Muslim students at the Islamic international school, which charges RM28,250 per annum for Grades 10 and 11, has been increasing over the years.
“For Malaysians, they want English and Islamic studies,” Zaleha said. “Now, parents want Islamic values more.”
Jihadism not spread at Islamic schools
Islamic international schools say that students are taught to think critically and to question their religious teachers instead of learning by rote. However, the schools appear to be conservative on the outside, with girls as young as five required to don the tudung. Girls’ uniforms are also loose and long-sleeved, with a long shirt extending past the buttocks.
One school even seats boys in front of girls in the classroom with the reasoning that boys would be distracted if they were to sit behind girls. Another school has gender segregation in the canteen and different days allocated to female and male students for swimming so that they don’t go to the pool together.
However, IIUM academic Maszlee, who rehabilitates suspected terrorists and Islamic State (IS) sympathisers, said it was a misconception that jihadism was inculcated at religious schools.
“IS sympathisers are searching for meaning in life,” he said. “Those who joined the IS in Malaysia ― they have nothing to lose. They’re economically marginalised. They don’t have a proper job. They’re doing small businesses. Quite a number of them come from broken homes.”
Maszlee said religious schools, on the other hand, taught knowledge and that students from such schools longed to be scholars, not fighters.
“Those I interviewed in cells ― they say they receive direct orders from God. You won’t find this in sekolah agama,” he said.