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  • Tunku Munawirah Putra, The Edge

Children learn what we teach them

Nothing about what goes wrong in our national schools is surprising anymore. As Murphy’s law says, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

The notion that our national schools are too religious and too Malay-centric is making headlines again following an incident involving a primary school’s canteen closure notice in the month of Ramadan.


But there are always two sides to a story. Much has been raised and discussed on social media since the case went viral. It would perhaps be more acceptable if the decision to close the canteen was a business one. Keeping the canteen open for 11 children who do not need to practise fasting may not make good business sense. However, the Ministry of Education intervened and it was decided that the canteen would stay open. The explanation for the damage control was that it was all a misunderstanding and poor message construction on the part of the school.


But the bigger issue is the rationale for closing the canteen in the first place. The reason, according to the explanation by a school administrator, was to train children to fast and to respect those who are fasting. Many were aghast at the statement and argued that it goes against the spirit of Ramadan and the act of fasting itself, as one is supposed to practise self-control, avoid temptation and contempt.


On the flip side, there are those who justified it on the grounds that it was perhaps done to encourage young Muslim children to fast and make it easy for them to do so without being exposed to temptation. In reality, though, many of them would not be fasting, but instead would restrain themselves and break their fast at home for lunch. This has been the practice at school during Ramadan from way back when, and done without much ado.


The school explained that the parents had been consulted about the canteen closure and they had agreed to it. Again, it depends on whether the parents who were consulted were Muslims. What is apparent is that the “well-meaning” but seemingly blinkered decision-making was the cause of the outrage. Although the teacher may not have intended to be prejudiced, such a mindset seems to have become the norm. Had the issue not come under the spotlight, the decision could have gone through and the school administrators would not have recognised that such an action is unjust for all concerned. Fasting is not obligatory for Muslim children who have not yet reached puberty.


Children learn what we teach them. What sort of lesson would the children learn from the school’s decision? This could result in teaching them the easy way out, that they are special, or that they need protection and are entitled to it.


This situation is such a contrast to how the Japanese teach and train children to build confidence and bravery. There is a new Netflix show called Old Enough, which is about Japanese pre-school children being sent to run errands for the first time on their own. Children as young as two years old are tasked with buying things or retrieving items from places familiar to them while being filmed by a camera crew without their knowledge. Granted, such experiences are more doable in a safe environment like Japan, but the point is that even children that young can be taught to think and complete missions that may seem difficult for their age. Learning through experience is so much more enriching than being dictated to and told what to do without being given space to think and learn.


It is not just the religiosity factor or preferential treatment that keeps cropping up that sets alarm bells ringing. The crux of the matter is the type of thinking (or non-thinking) that is being promoted in schools, which does not encourage the achievement of excellence in education. This is a worrying trend that is contributing to the dwindling popularity of the national primary school, reducing it to the school for those who do not have a choice.


For now, we have to plod along and work with what we have, and let this incident be a lesson for all concerned so things may improve. Perhaps it would be timely for the Ministry of Education to issue clear guidelines on the dos and don’ts with regards to religious, racial and cultural practices within school grounds. For example, the slaughter of animals in school during Qurban should be prohibited. Another is the management of eateries and eating places during Ramadan that ensures that fairness and harmony is practised in all aspects.


We need to stop mollycoddling our children. We must provide them with the tools and space to discover things that are beneficial for them to navigate in this world, so they will learn to live in peace and harmony.


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