By Mariam Mokhtar
Some European friends, who came to stay with a Malaysian family were alarmed when the household retired for the night, and the host locked the iron grille at the top of the two storey house. The visitors panicked and asked the host if they were being caged. The host replied, "It is for our safety."
The host put the key in a safe place and said, "We do not want any thieves to get in and harm us." It did not reassure the visitors. Their thoughts were on how to escape if the house were to catch fire.
Many parents have contacted me about the deadly, early-morning fire, which engulfed the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz school in Kuala Lumpur, and killed 21 pupils and two teachers. They wanted tougher laws to protect children and stop the physical and psychological mistreatment of children in hostels and boarding schools.
Parents expressed genuine concern, especially as they had barely recovered from the shock of the death in April, of 11-year-old Mohamad Thaqif Amin Mohd Gaddafi, who died after being beaten by an assistant warden, but whose death was attributed to leptospirosis, a disease caused by exposure to rat urine.
Some parents wanted the schools to be shut, and only reopened after a thorough investigation has been conducted. They were keen that a standardised format for running these schools should be agreed upon by teachers, headmasters, parents, the Ministry of Education, the associated bodies such as the Fire Department and the religious authorities.
A few of these parents wanted heads to roll, because too many incidents had occurred. The general consensus of those who expressed their feelings, was of anger and disappointment. No-one wanted a repeat of this tragedy, or of the other tragedies which occurred in tahfiz schools.
Some parents expressed disgust, when the Perak mufti, Harussani Zakaria urged Malaysians not to "mock" the deadly tahfiz school fire at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz. His statement is disingenuous.
Most Malaysians have shown genuine concern for the well-being of the tahfiz school students. No-one is mocking the schools, but many are questioning the management, safety considerations, the welfare of the students and how the children can become productive Malaysians, and contribute towards nation building.
Harussani said that the people who mocked tahfiz schools, were both ignorant and prejudicial towards others. He concluded that these people would go to hell.
Using the analogy of durian and petai eating, he said, "If like to eat durian, but eating a lot of durian can cause diabetes. So we forbid eating durian. Can it be so? We forbid eating petai because it smells, but now petai can treat diabetes." (sic)
To the people who wanted the schools to be shut, he said, “It is the same with the issue of tahfiz centres, for me, it is the thought that comes from someone who is shallow-minded.”
Running a school, in which scores of young children are housed, cannot be compared to stuffing oneself with Malaysia's favourite fruit, the durian.
Perhaps, Harussani has a point in using the analogy of eating durians and diabetes.
Diabetes, both type 1 and type 2 must be taken seriously. People with type 1 diabetes are likely to live 20 years less than the average person. Once diagnosed, a patient must inject themselves daily, with insulin, for the rest of their lives.
Diabetes requires round-the-clock monitoring, every day, but many people do not take their insulin as they should, and this leads to potentially fatal consequences. If people ignore the doctor's recommendation, they are only harming themselves.
Running a boarding school requires round the clock attention and dedication. The Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister, Noh Omar, admitted that the tahfiz school that burned did not have a permit from the fire and rescue department. The building should not have been occupied. There were no fire escapes, fire sprinklers, or fire alarms.
The person who knows he has diabetes, and continues to gorge himself on durians and other sugary foods, has only himself to blame, if his condition worsens. This is the analogy with the school fire. The school ignored the fire department's safety recommendations. Why?
Fire is a serious matter. We have failed to make tahfiz schools accountable. The headmaster, the warden and the owner knew that the school was operating illegally. We close one eye to the abuses, the neglect and incompetence. We deflect criticism by claiming the children are “going to heaven”.
Why did enforcement fail?
To make matters worse, Noh said that action may not be taken against the school as “they have suffered enough”. Try telling that to the parents. If fire regulations and other safety considerations had not been ignored, the tragedy may have been avoided.
Parents entrust the care, and future of their own flesh and blood to the school. The school owner and management owe them a duty of responsibility to look after their children properly.
The parents want good supervision and guidance from the staff. They want a school that is run smoothly, thrives on mutual respect and is friendly. More importantly, they value the safety and welfare of their children. The school has a responsibility and a duty of care towards the parents and the children.
When parents decide to send their young child to a boarding school, they give their child to a stranger, and entrust him to take care and protect their child. The child's safety and welfare is in that stranger's hands. Whilst the child will not receive parental love, he should be happy at school. More importantly, could the parents live with themselves, if their child were to come home in a box?