Do more tragedies await our children? — Amar-Singh HSS

MARCH 8 — The recent fires that engulfed the lives of our innocent children in religious residential schools is but one of a series of tragedies that have ravaged our young ones. Once again we have an out pouring of concern and a desire to see concrete and positive policies put in place.

Often these fade with time until the next tragedy strikes. There seems to be a lack of responsibility or ownership for the failure. Is not the care and support of all children mandated under various government agencies? There is legislation to protect children and ensure their wellbeing under the Child Act (amended 2016), the Care Centres Act 1993, Education Act 1996, Fire and Building Safety Regulations, etc.

A summary of the facts to remind us:

  • There are approximately 1,000 tahfiz schools in the country but only 40-50% are registered.
  • Less than 50 per cent have valid permits from the Fire and Rescue Department for the building to be occupied.
  • 1,034 fires occurred in registered and unregistered religious schools from August 2015 to August 2017.

Important note on data: Quoted figures vary as no one is certain of the exact number of these schools. This fact alone is of great concern.

This is not a religious issue. It is about keeping our children safe and offering them a meaningful future. As the Director-General of the Fire and Rescue Department, Datuk Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim, said “lives could have been prevented if these schools had followed government regulations in applying for the proper follow-up permits.”

Of concern is not just fire safety but also transportation safety, education quality, access to play and recreation, discipline methods and potential for child abuse, nutrition quality in the centres, sleeping arrangements in dormitories, etc.

Mainstream education facilities and residential schools, whether they be governmental, private or international, have very strict supervision and monitoring; the slightest infringement is dealt with sternly. Surely these religious residential schools should also be subject to the same rules for the safety of our children.

Our children deserve the prospect and environment for a wholesome and comprehensive education. As our Education Act 1996 clearly states that “the purpose of education is to enable the Malaysian society to have a command of knowledge, skills and values necessary in a world that is highly competitive and globalised, arising from the impact of rapid development in science, technology and information.”

However, we have some tahfiz schools that only study religion and many that do not prepare students to sit for government education examinations, leaving little prospects for students to qualify for tertiary education. Each religious school sets its own syllabus and the quality varies greatly.

The abuse that some children suffer in residential religious schools, camouflaged as stern discipline, has been of concern to many of us who work with children. That there is no external oversight for these organisations is of serious concern.

Surely all education facilities should be governed by the Education Act 1996 and come under the preview and inspection of the Ministry of Education. The Welfare Department has also not played its role as child protectors mandated under the Child Act.

The concern is not just for religious schools but also for the quality of services at mainstream schools and other alternative schooling systems. Let’s not wait for more tragedies before we take action to put in place systems to protect our children.

For example, the transportation of children to and from school is of some concern. I have seen vehicles, not authorised to transport children, packed-to-the-brim transporting children from religious residential schools and mainstream schools.

Included in this article is an image (above) of 17 children being transported in a van (illegally) from one school in Ipoh (I have edited the image to protect the children’s identity). The vehicle was so packed that four girls were required to kneel or stand at the back with no seats.

It is frightening to imagine what the outcome would be if there is an accident. Surely this kind of danger is visible to the school authorities and parents?

Our Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) has a “School Children on School Bus Coverage Scheme” (SCSBCS) that aims to raise the service standards of the school bus industry and encourage parents to use the services of legal and registered school buses. But enforcement to prevent dangerous illegal transporting of school children is lacking.

There is concern that we, as a nation, lack the ability to learn from past mistakes and failures. It is vital that every organisation or service for children uphold high standards and be scrutinised carefully. They must be accountable not just to parents but to the relevant government authorities. The relevant authorities must play a pro-active, vigilant and close supervisory role.

These are our children, our nation’s treasure.

And to lose even one is heartbreaking.

We must change to ensure our children have a safe educational environment.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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