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Malaysia’s Islamic schools face festering problems

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 8 July 2019


As Malaysia's ethnic Malays have increasingly turned to traditional Malay Islamic schools, known as pondoks or Tahfiz schools, the fact that they are largely unregulated is allowing problems to fester, including unsafe conditions, exposure to extremist teachings and especially child sexual abuse by ustazes, or teachers.

Almost 1,000 new pondoks have opened over the past six years. However, there are no reliable figures on how many there are because many are not registered. They escape Federal Ministry of Education supervision because Islamic education is a responsibility of individual states. Registered and unregistered pondoks number into the thousands with an estimated 150,000 students, some from neighboring countries of Indonesia and Thailand. This represents about 6 percent to 7 percent of Malaysia's total secondary student population.

In recent times concerns have grown that pondoks incubate extremist teachings. A number have been closed by police although it is rarely reported. In one reported case, local and foreign Ustazes found at a pondok in the state of Perlis were found to have connections with terrorist organizations. There have also been several fires, with one claiming 21 lives. Severe canings have resulted in loss of life and torture reported.

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Yet one of the areas of biggest concern in pondoks and Tahfiz schools is child sexual abuse. The problem has been around a long time with only a few cases reaching the notice of authorities but:

· In mid-2018 a 21 year old ustaz was charged for allegedly having oral sex with a 14 year old boy. The ustaz asked the boy numerous times and eventually the boy had given in because he didn't want to disappoint or upset his teacher.

· The principal of another pondok in Kepong was charged for allegedly sodomising nine of his students. A hostel warden in Kangar was arrested for allegedly sodomising two students and molesting three others and absconded while on bail. The warden was eventually caught and sentenced to 228 years jail and 42 strokes of the rotan after pleading guilty to 25 counts of sodomy and gross indecency against five Tahfiz school students. An ustaz was arrested and charged with allegedly fondling the genitals of a 10 year old boy while he was reciting the Qu'ran.

· In Kuantan, a school volunteer was charged with 38 counts of sodomising and molesting young boys at a Tahfiz school.

All of the above cases were only reported after the boys returned home and told their parents, after which police reports were made against the teachers and wardens.

Pondoks are perfect places for Ustazes to groom their victims. Students are vulnerable as they believe the school is a holy place and hold their teachers in an extremely high regard. The inclination of students is to please their teachers. Malaysia has the highest power-distance culture in the world in which a leader's position at the top of the hierarchy is accepted without question. This high power-distance culture means students can easily fall vulnerable to paternalistic leaders and obediently comply.

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The high power-distance culture and the fact that discussion about sex is taboo in Malaysia to some degree protects Ustazes from being found out. There is a great hesitancy on the part of students to tell anybody about such encounters, partly explaining why there are so many unreported cases.

Research has also shown that Malays poorly understand what constitutes sexual abuse. The concept of rape and abuse is construed as occurring without consent and by force. In most of the cases within the pondoks, grooming and persuasion precede sexual abuse and/or rape. Thus, after any sexual acts the students feel shy, depressed, cheated, and most of all guilty about what happened and keep the experience to themselves. Some even fear that if they talk, they would be forced to leave, disappointing their parents. In one case, parents were still sending their children to an unlicensed pondok that was at the center of sexual abuse claims.

Even more tragically, some students have come from an abusive home background which is taken advantage of by predatory ustazes.

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This article was first published by Asia Sentinel.



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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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