KUALA LUMPUR, April 29 — The spotlight on Islamic schools intensified this week after a student at one of them died following abuse.
These schools — whether private or state-funded — are increasingly popular in Malaysia as more and more Muslims here seek out religious instruction for their children.
But how much do we know about them?
Here, Malay Mail Online offers a list of quick facts that you need to know in order to join in the growing conversation on this topic:
1. So who is in charge of what?
If you think that the Education Ministry oversees all schools in the country including Islamic schools, think again.
The system relating to religious education in Malaysia is far more complex, with different classifications or pathways that determine if an Islamic school gets government funding or uses the national curriculum.
According to the ministry's Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 launched September 2013, there are broadly two main categories for religious schools — public and private.
Under public religious schools where over 90,000 students or two per cent of the 5.2 million-strong nationwide student population are enrolled, there are national religious schools which fall under the Education Ministry's jurisdiction and get federal funding and use the national curriculum, while state religious schools (SAN) have the same characteristics but also teach the religious curriculum and are registered with state religious authorities instead of the ministry.
As for government-aided religious schools (SABK), they are similar to the national religious schools apart from the fact that they are also jointly controlled by state religious authorities and use the religious curriculum on top of the national curriculum.
This situation may hardly be surprising since Islam is a matter administered by the respective states of Malaysia, where Shariah law may even differ from state to state.
Under the private religious schools category numbering about 350 then and catering to one per cent of the 5.2 million primary and secondary school students nationwide, the blueprint said the typically small and underfunded state-registered Sekolah Agama Rakyat (SAR) and Sekolah Agama Persendirian (SAP) were in rural areas, while the private religious schools or Sekolah Agama Swasta registered with both the states and federal government are similar to international schools and are usually in urban areas.
The blueprint said the high enrollment rejection rate of over 80 per cent at public religious secondary schools due to insufficient places led to the ministry rolling out religious stream classes (KAA) in 547 national secondary schools.
The ministry also introduced a registration programme that had seen 195 SAN and SAR schools converted to become SABK to meet the demand.
According to the latest statistics available on the ministry's website, there are a total of 273 religious schools — namely SMKA or national religious secondary schools (57) and SABK government-aided primary (36) and secondary religious schools (180), with a total of 11,671 teachers as of April 30, 2016.
Just for comparison, the total number of enrolled primary (2,685,403) and secondary (2,188,525) students in Malaysia as of May 31, 2016 is slightly over 4.87 million, while preschool students numbered 200,684.
And that is for 10,180 schools nationwide — with primary schools forming the bulk at 7,772 and the remaining 2,408 being secondary schools, according to July 2016 figures from the ministry. Figures available as of last June 1 pegs the total number of primary and secondary school teachers at 421,828.
As for the number of Islamic schools under state jurisdiction, Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) director-general Tan Sri Othman Mustapha was reported last December as saying that there are 547 tahfiz schools registered with the state religious authorities with 36,736 students and 3,340 teachers as of January 2016.
2. Hold on, unregistered and unregulated?
Testifying to the apparent growing demand for religious teachings is the huge number of tahfiz schools (where the Quran is memorised), with the newly-created Federation of National Associations of al-Quran Tahfiz Institutions (Pinta) telling Malay Mail that only 670 out of around 1,200 tahfiz schools nationwide are registered, have their syllabus looked into and financial assistance provided.
Back in 2014, the Education Ministry's Religious School Development Sector's head Hassan Nudin A. Hamid reportedly said]the ministry's 2011 statistics showed there were 278 registered tahfiz schools nationwide —- with the majority privately-run and with 14 of them under the state or federal government's oversight.
The existence of unregistered private religious schools leaves open the horrifying question of whether there are any regulations at all on permitted punishments on their students, and whether the clear and strict guidelines on caning in the Education Ministry's 2003 circular applies.
Deputy Education Minister Datuk Chong Sin Woon had this Tuesday told Malay Mail Online that the ministry still maintains corporal punishment for students with the intention of educating them, noting that caning is a severe punishment that is used on students who continue to flout school regulations.
Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid said Thursday however that all private religious schools must follow the ministry's standard operating procedure for matters such as the discipline and welfare of teachers and students, regardless of which jurisdiction the schools fall under.
3. What's going to change?
Calls have been made for private tahfiz schools to be suspended or shut down in the wake of the tragedy, but Mahdzir also said Thursday that all such schools will have to register with and be brought under federal agency Jakim’s oversight.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had, when launching Pinta last month, said Jakim is currently drawing up a National Tahfiz Education Policy (DPTN) which has been touted as a policy with guidelines allowing for a more structured and systematic development of religious education nationwide.
It is unclear if unregistered tahfiz schools that do not adopt the national syllabus would only churn out religiously-qualified graduates who are not as equipped academically. From news reports, it would seem that there are tahfiz schools that offer academic lessons from the national syllabus to help their students sit for the SPM examination that secondary school leavers must take, with some even scoring good results or having high passing rates.
Last October, minister in charge of Islamic affairs Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom noted the mushrooming of tahfiz schools nationwide with some of them in rented houses. He said DPTN would be in line with the prime minister’s wish for tahfiz education to go hand in hand with academic education.
Private tahfiz schools may now have a bigger incentive to register as this often comes with the benefits of financial assistance, as seen in Najib's announcement of a special RM10,000 incentive for private tahfiz schools registered with state religious authorities.
The prime minister made the announcement on Tuesday when he was giving out RM80 million previously allocated in Budget 2017 to 819 representatives of registered sekolah pondok, Sekolah Menengah Agama Rakyat (SMAR) and tahfiz schools nationwide, with RM30 million of this sum to be used to co-ordinate tahfiz schools under the DPTN.
In Budget 2017, the federal government allocated RM600 million to a Special Fund for Improvement and Maintenance of Schools, with 42 per cent or RM250 million going to national schools, while seven other categories of schools were to receive RM50 million each, namely national-type Chinese schools; national-type Tamil schools; fully residential schools; religious schools; government-aided religious schools; registered sekolah pondok; and MARA Junior Science Colleges.
With the tragic death on Wednesday of 11-year-old Mohamad Thaqif Amin Mohd Gaddafi still hanging heavy over the nation, the only question left now is whether systemic reforms and improvements for the country's religious schools will come fast enough.