MUSLIM parents are turning to tahfiz schools as a last-ditch attempt to rehabilitate their children, who are either struggling academically or having behavioural problems, said an administrator at a religious school in the Klang Valley.
Anwar Awang, the deputy director of a tahfiz school in Rawang, Selangor, said three-quarters of the 46 pupils in his school faced disciplinary problems and have failed academically at national schools.
“For me, tahfiz schools are just below government schools for juvenile delinquents,” said Anwar.
Their parents, at a loss, usually turn to religious schools which, in principle, cannot turn away pupils, he said.
“When parents feel they can no longer look after their own children, they send them here with the hope that we can rehabilitate them.
“Yes, we cannot reject anyone who wants to learn the Quran. That is the dilemma,” Anwar said.
Muslim children normally start tahfiz (memorising and reciting Quranic verses) classes by 11 years old but the number of younger children enrolled in schools has been increasing in recent years.
While most tahfiz schools are funded by individuals and corporate bodies, pupils are charged a minimal sum to cover running costs.
Anwar’s school charges RM350 a month for each child – RM300 for food and lodging and RM50 for laundry costs. However, families who cannot pay the fees will not be turned away.
Azmi Yusof has a 17-year-old son at another tahfiz school in Selayang. He spends RM450 a month for an education programme that also includes Quranic memorisation and other regular subjects, such as mathematics and science.
The tahfiz school also serves as a boarding school, where his son lives six days a week.
Azmi said there is no accreditation of which he knows for tahfiz schools, adding that word-of-mouth is the only way to know if a school is run well or not.
“There is no official certification. People know whether a school is good or not by reputation,” he said.
The deadly blaze at a tahfiz school in Kg Datuk Keramat, Kuala Lumpur, on September 14 has thrown an uncomfortable glare on the state of religious schools in Malaysia.
The fire at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz school killed 23 people, including 21 schoolchildren, and prompted an outcry on the need to regulate and monitor the mushrooming of religious schools.
Azmi’s son is enrolled in a school, which is not registered with the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais). It is now required to spend RM11,000 to construct a fire-safety stairwell.
The school has also been asked to register with the department.
News reports earlier placed the number of tahfiz schools at about 10,000 nationwide, with most unregistered or operating without fire-safety certification.
However, according to the Fire and Rescue Department, there are currently 1,657 tahfiz schools, out of which 40% are in breach of fire-safety rules.
A check by The Malaysian Insight found that 684 tahfiz schools are registered with the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) while only three are registered with the Education Ministry.
In Negri Sembilan, only one out of 63 tahfiz, government and private religious schools, and pondok schools statewide possessed the certificate of completion and compliance (CCC).
The Kg Datuk Keramat tahfiz school did not possess a CCC and was reported, among other examples of falling short in safety standards, to have only one exit on the top floor where the fire started.
The fact that many parents who send their children to tahfiz schools see them as “saviours” for their wayward or academically challenged children complicates calls to legalise and persecute these institutions for wrongdoing, said legal experts.
Instead, they said that when it comes to religious education centres, the law needs to work hand-in-hand with religious sensitivities.
“There is nothing to prevent the parents of the schoolchildren from suing the tahfiz school administrator, including the principal, for negligence,” said Lim Wei Jiet, deputy co-chairperson of the Malaysian Bar’s constitutional law committee, of the Kg Datuk Keramat school incident.
“The administration has a duty of care towards the schoolchildren… It breached its duty by failing to comply with fire-safety regulations,” he said.
“While the deaths and fire were caused mainly by third parties, such a breach likely caused or contributed to the deaths of the schoolchildren.”
The principal of the Kg Datuk Keramat tahfiz school, Muhammad Zahid Mahmood, said the building was a temporary home and that parents did not complain about fire-safety issues before.
Still, lawyer and PKR leader Latheefa Koya said families of the deceased could still hold the principal and other operators culpable for the deaths.
“They may not be charged with murder but the lives of the children were placed under the charge of the operators.
“Whether there was intent to set fire to the place by another group is a separate issue,” she said, adding that families have the option to file a class-action civil suit or a criminal one depending on the outcome of the investigations.
However, Andrew Khoo, co-chairman of the Bar Council human rights committee, said, in reality, the Keramat case, as most cases involving possible negligence in religious institutions, would be a challenge to tackle.
“I think there’s a whole host of other issues – was it even approved as a school premises?
“Maybe a light touch (is required) because it is a religious school… sensitive to prosecute.”
None of the parents has indicated a desire to file a criminal or civil suit against the school and the tahfiz school has reportedly resumed its lessons with little disruption to its intake of pupils.
Azmi, whose son attends a tahfiz school in Selayang, said he, for one, believes that the principal in the Kg Datuk Keramat case should not be found culpable for the deaths.
“The door was locked by the (intruders). They set fire to the place. That was what caused the deaths.
“(Even) if there were two exits, they could have just locked both doors.” – October 9, 2017.