Saturday, January 14, 2006

More Religious National Schools

Hot on the heels on Tony's posting on religious billboards in a Kajang High School, the Star has reported a story in Batu Pahat, of a Punjabi student being asked to shave his beard, moustache and sideburns.

These stories and others like them point to an underlying problem that needs to be probed further. How much autonomy are school authorities given at a local level? According to the Star article, "State Education Department Mohamad Zakaria Mohd Noor said Ranveer Singh could write to the director of schools unit under the Education Ministry to be permitted to keep his facial hair and side burns."

I've always thought that education was largely a federal issue. Teachers in national schools are paid out of the federal budget. They are employed by the federal government. The policies that are followed are ones that are produced by the federal government. And yet, there is also a state education bureaucracy. I've never been clear as to what jurisdiction state education officials have over our primary and secondary schools. Is it confined only to religious matters? Or matters to do with the local municipalities or land use and such? From the comment of the state education officer above, it doesn't indicate that the state education officers have jurisdiction over the rules and regulations of a specific school. That jurisdiction remains at the federal level with the Ministry of Education.

So, how much autonomy are the school principals given in regards to setting school rules? I'm sure that a principle has at least some authority in running a school. For example, I don't think there is a set format that school assemblies have to follow. Or how school halls can let out for members of the community to use. Or the relationship between the school and its alumnus organization. There are bound to be many grey areas in which there is nothing set in writing in regards to what a principal should or should not do. And this is probably where matters such as the two raised above arise.

Principals who are overzealous in promoting one kind of policy / direction over others will inevitably create situations where he or she has overstepped a boundary. Note that this kind of overstepping can occur in many ways. For example, the principal who forces each student to sell a minimum number of canteen day coupons is as guilty of overstepping that boundary as the principal who has given an ultimatum to Ranveer to shave his facial hair. But the difference is in the effects of different acts of overstepping. Acts which can and are interpreted as religious overstepping are likely to have more serious national consequences than forcing students to sell canteen day coupons. Such acts only add fuel to the fire that national schools are being 'Islamized' by overzealous principals even if such principals constitute only a small minority among all principals.

It is good that the NST published Kahisan's letter regarding the religious billboards at his alma mater, the Kajang High School. It is also good that the Star published Ranveer Singh's story. The media is an important medium in which such overstepping can be highlighted and if possible, corrected. The Ministry of Education can do much to assuage the fears of non-Malay parents (and even some Malay parents, I think) if they would deal with such situations effectively.

In the longer run, the Ministry can prepare more concrete guidelines in regards to what principals can and cannot do especially in the area concerning religious practices.

Groups at the local level, especially Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs), can also make their views known to the principals who have overstepped certain boundaries.

The odds are stacked against the Ministry of Education in its task of attracting more non-Malays back into the national school system. There are not that many non-Malays like Tony who are willing to send their kids to a national school. I, for one, while treasuring the importance of multicultural exposure, would choose to send my kids (when I have kids) to a Chinese primary school to reap the benefits of learning Chinese, and then send them to a national secondary school. I think there are still many decent national secondary schools in the PJ area which have not been overtaken by principals who are intent on 'Islamizing' our national schools. But if more and more stories like the two highlighted here keep popping up, it will be difficult to convince others that this is not the case.


John Lee said...

I think the problem is that the state education department officials are not accountable to the rakyat. Contrast this with the American school boards, where if people don't like the syllabus, they can vote out their officials (as was done recently in Dover after the Intelligent Design debacle). Here, ada masalah? You complain kat kerajaan federal lah! This totally defeats the point of real federalism and devolution of powers, which is to make government directly accountable and available to the people.

Anonymous said...

A few days ago there was a complaint in the Star regarding how 10% will be deducted from the exams if the students do not conform to wearing a tudung.

Is there any abuse in this case? Or is it part of the national/school policy.

Ching said...

These are examples of enemy from within. They use racial and religious sentiments to destroy Malaysia.

How to deal with this? Don't get them into office in the first place. But a bit hard la cause a lot of them already holding high posts.People who think a like do alike. They will promote each other.

But constant pressure (like this blog) should help a bit.