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A system and culture of abuse?

Mohamad Thaqif Amin Mohd Gadaff, 11, passed away yesterday.

The student of a tahfiz school (religious school) was admitted into Hospital SultanahAminah in Johor earlier this week, having suffered infection in both his legs, a condition that spread to his kidneys and shoulder. So critical was his condition that the doctors had to amputate his legs, and were unable to operate any further on his shoulder due to his unstable heart condition.

He was allegedly abused at the hands of an assistant warden, who allegedly beat his legs with a water hose pipe. The assistant warden, a 29-year-old and former convicted felon, had served time for theft and eventually was hired since 2016 by the tahfiz school after his release.

Malaysians have been thrown into an uproar ever since, with the issue becoming very prickly because it involves a religious school and child welfare. Social worker and activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi himself faced some backlash from some quarters who accuse him of attacking religion when his previous posts regarding the issue (clearly) advocate child welfare.

Since this case has gone nationwide, several parties have stepped in: The Parent Action Group (Page) has urged a full review and regulation system for religious schools. Gabungan Persatuan Institusi Tahfiz Al-Quran Kebangsaan (Pinta), the umbrella group for religious schools nationwide, has urged the public to wait until the full facts of the case to come out from the police investigation.

Earlier, they defended the targeted tahfiz school, claiming that the closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera footage only showed the assistant warden only hitting the soles of the boy’s feet.

While this claim may contradict with the boy’s ailing condition, as well as suggesting there were elements outside the tahfiz school involved - Thaqif’s diary notes of punishment taking the form of beatings and punching, and his desperate plea to change schools. Pleas that the parents did not heed and passed off as a “small matter”. It took two weeks before the boy’s condition became critical, which led to his eventual hospitalisation.

The parents are now mulling legal action if Thaqif’s death is indeed linked to the abuse he allegedly suffered at the hands of the assistant warden, whose remand has been extended. In fact, inspector-general of police Khalid Abu Bakar has stated that the case has now been reclassified as a murder investigation, and conveyed his condolences to the family. Statements have been taken from the tahfiz school’s nine other pupils and several others.

While the facts and opinions surrounding the issue has been wide-ranging, my thoughts incline towards:

The lack of a disclosure and barring system (DBS)

Background checks and a criminal record system is commonplace in many developed countries across Europe and America (and Australia). It serves the many purposes, from helping employers making informed decisions about hiring to purchasing firearms (in the US at least).

Essentially, it’s used to make judgment about a person, especially if you're going to put them in a position of trust, or one where they’re dealing with vulnerable groups. In the UK, a strict DBS check is required if you will be working with children, in healthcare or even with animals.

That a former convict could be hired into a position of an assistant warden, with dozens of children under his care, speaks volumes about how seriously we take the issue of child welfare and safety. It’s not enough to vow to end sexual abuse towards children and work on laws in those specific areas. All forms of abuse needs to taken into light - and one of the first steps is to address the very people we’re putting our children in the same room with.

Currently, the closest thing Malaysia has to a DBS (and background) check is the Letter of Good Conduct done by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. It may be useful for foreign countries in screening their own immigration borders, but not for us in our home soil.

However as Page and some parties may argue: “Thaqif’s death could have been avoided if the school had better funding and was able to hire an experienced warden. The warden is there as a worker and not an educator. When you are in a poor school, you have very little choice who works for you. You are not able to choose a qualified warden as the school does not have the funding.”

Fair enough, though in light of Thaqif’s death, it's uncertain what message our Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak may be sending in light of his recent RM80 million funding for registered tahfiz schools throughout the country.

The culture of shame, silence and sweeping under the rug

It's common to hear of teachers involved in legal cases to be transferred to other schools. That’s pretty much suggesting that the problem is with the school they’re in (and the children involved), as opposed to the teachers themselves. That’s exactly what happened last year when a teacher was transferred to another school despite allegedly being accused of molesting nine children.

What’s even more surprising is how the receiving school would even still want to take in an individual having allegations of child molestation. Though to be fair, it’s likely that the school administration had little or no say in the decision.

Education director-general Khair Mohamad Yusof says it’s fair procedure until the alleged individual is found positively guilty. While we should stand true by “innocent until proven guilty”, we are dealing with a vulnerable group of children here. There’s no question as to whose rights and safety matter more in this instance. If someone’s been accused of abusing and molesting children, no one should take that lightly.

But transferring teachers is not a new thing. It’s part of a culture of silence, keeping face and sweeping things under the rug. In cases over the years, an abused student is offered RM2 to “keep quiet about the incident”, or the involved school would meet the family personally, hoping to exchange close to RM1,000 for the family’s silence on the matter. This despite the children suffering some form of abuse with some that has led to hospitalisation.

This is eerily reminiscent of the parish transfers of abusive priests, a decades-long scandal uncovered by the Boston Globe’s investigative efforts (and recently dramatised into an Oscar-winning film). The involved priests moved from parish to parish and were instead directed to seek psychological treatment.

There is no shred of doubt that the silence surrounding the scandal, and difficulty in making this issue public was due to the fact that it had an aspect of religion; something deeply sensitive personally, culturally and institutionally. The church’s influence ran deep enough to prevent the thousands of cases of sexually abused children bubble to public surface.

Back home, criticism taken to religious schools can easily (and mistakenly) be broadly interpreted as an attack on religion, and the “smearing of religion’s reputation and image”. Is it any wonder then that we can never really address the true issue: abuse taking place an educational institution? Especially when the conversation dives head-into a socio-religious one, as opposed to an institutional and social one.

No one has a problem with tahfiz schools teaching religious education (choosing your children’s form of education is a right). But when the lack of proper regulation of tahfiz schools allows breathing room for abuse, then saying, “It is not right to label all religious schools to be abusive towards their students”, is a statement steeped in not acknowledging the problem.

Especially when the school the abuse took place in is claimed to be one of the state’s best. What does that say about the rest?

May your soul rest in peace, Thaqif, and may justice be served.

AZIFF AZUDDIN is a freelance journalist who is currently up and about.

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