The interracial spirit of unity that usually descends upon this nation during festivities, was somewhat marred over the Lunar New Year celebrations by unsettling rumbles of yet another controversy over racial issues sparked by an all-girls secondary school in Johor.
Two years ago, a school in Batu Pahat, Johor was criticised in the media for racially segregating students for sports activities.
This time around, the issue is over an alleged ‘secret racially segregated’ motivational camp, organised by the Johor Bahru Convent school during the Lunar New Year break, ahead of the SPM exams.
Since the media spotlight on this matter a couple of days ago, the Ministry of Education almost immediately volleyed it into the court of the state Education Department like a hot potato, with the former stating that the issue “came under the purview” of the latter.
Having come from a lifetime of a career in schools myself, I feel the ministry should have helmed such an investigation, especially since it involved a serious accusation. It should not have thrown the state Education Department under the bus.
In cases like these, good management dictates that some objectivity and distance from the source of the problem should have been observed. Friendships and liaisons between school heads and state department officials are common, and this could ultimately distort the outcome of any such investigations.
By tossing the matter down the line, the ministry has instantly attempted to douse and diminish the grave nature of the accusations and the serious concerns of the public. This is just my humble personal view.
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In the end, it was unclear who did the actual investigations but the ministry has suddenly issued a statement in which, it claims “there was no discrimination in the programme as the workshop was broken up into different sessions to avoid disrupting the festivities for students celebrating Chinese New Year”. It added that “these students will attend the workshop on 26 and 27 January”.
Now there are several problems with this statement that do not sit well with me. There are just too many holes in it; many who are themselves not familiar with the ethos of schools are already seeing it as a lie and as an attempt at damage control!
The ministry’s statement is loaded with irresponsible callousness! I wonder how comprehensive and thorough the investigation was. The ministry has to address this or lose its credibility as being fair and transparent.
With my lifetime’s experience in schools, I know that the dates for all programmes (including the motivational camp for the ethnic Malay students and that for those of other ethnicities) should have been made public or shared with the school community at the start of the academic year.
The motivational camps should have been clearly identified in the school’s annual calendar. The specific details of the programme, the time and the venue should have been openly shared with the students at the school assembly.
Yet, some attempts were clearly made to shroud the programme in a cloak of secrecy and subterfuge. It would not have exploded in the face of the school administration and in the media had these steps of basic management and good communication practices been taken.
Then, there is that other ‘secret’ motivational camp for students of other ethnicities (to be held on 26-27 January, according to the ministry’s statement), which is equally intriguing. It does seem that no one – not even the students or the parents of the students involved in this camp – knew anything about it until it was mentioned in the ministry’s 24 January statement.
Why should information about this second camp be kept a secret until just about a day before the date of the camp, unless it was an attempt at damage control? I wonder if the parents would have been so outraged had they been informed much earlier.
For parents of the Convent students to be so dismayed and outraged enough to have exploded the matter over social media and the press – they clearly were not informed!
If there is to be a camp on 26-27 January for students of other ethnicities, a circular notifying the parents about the venue, accommodation and other basics, should have been issued well ahead of the programme. If there was such a camp, then this outrage of the parents and the media once again does not make sense!!
But, to be fair to the school, perhaps the programme on 26-27 January is planned to be held within the school premises during school time. If so, then it might probably explain the absence of a circular to the parents. It could probably have been an innocent oversight by the school administration.
This, however, raises another question. How would the school now manage the teaching and learning of the Malay students during school hours while the other students are having their ‘motivational’ camp? I wonder if they would now be given more secret motivation?
In any case, if there was to have been another programme for the other students on 26-27 January, then shouldn’t such a programme also be conducted at the same hotel too? If not, wouldn’t this be perceived as the school being blatantly unfair and racist in the way it treats its students?
If the other students are also to be housed in a hotel for the duration of the programme, then why were the parents not informed about this well ahead of the specified dates, as this would entail parental permission documents, transportation and security issues?
Finally, I just must ask this question. Why separate the races? Why not conduct these sessions for all students together, instead of choosing to do one session during the Lunar New Year holidays?
This practice of targeting only the Malay students for special classes and tutorials is nothing new. It has been happening in many forms, even in the universities, openly or sometimes under the mask of religious or cultural activities.
It has happened so much and so often that school administrations may no longer be able to see that it is simply wrong, that racism is wrong, that racist school policies are wrong!
But can anyone in Malaysia be able to rationally recognise racism for what it is, when the entire country – from government jobs, contracts and even housing – is run on racist policies?
At least we should be able to hope that our schools are not seen as being the seedbed for racism. But sadly today, they now seem to be, because such policies teach our very young that segregation and racism are acceptable norms!
The ministry has a lot to answer for and should have investigated this deeper and fairly. They should not have tried to appease the public with a shallow, flimsy statement that not only overlooks standard school procedures but also appears to be flippant and irresponsible.
The Ministry of Education should not be perceived to be trying to cover up one misdeed with another, which now stands to compromise its own validity!