On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Teach, not convert students

It’s time for the Education Ministry to send out a directive that religious conversion is strictly out of bounds in schools.

TEACHERS are hired to teach – that’s why they are called teachers. But in the case of two teachers in SMK Lutong in Miri, Sarawak, they went further and created a storm in the process.

The two, who are from the peninsula, have been taken out of the school and reassigned to desk jobs with immediate effect for allegedly converting a 13-year-old student to Islam. The Education Ministry has acted rightly and swiftly to put an end to the ugly episode.

We all know that attempting to convert any child below 18 years old to whatever religion without the parents’ consent is illegal.

It is time for the Education Ministry to send out a directive that religious conversion is strictly out of bounds in schools, where all the students are below the age of 18.

When cases like this happen, we should not simply transfer the teachers to another school, whether within the state, or even to another state. If these teachers are not clear as to their actual role within the confines of the school, then it would not be proper to place them anywhere near our schoolchildren.

That the girl involved came from a Chris­tian family only heightened the contro­versy, which has not only angered the predominantly Christian community in Sarawak, but also gone viral on social media.

Some already feel that the two teachers should be sacked immediately but as civil servants, they are also entitled to due process. According to media reports, they have been assigned to desk jobs at the Miri district education office, and the likelihood of them being transferred out of Sarawak is probably a foregone conclusion.

We must, however, be clear that they should not remain as teachers unless we can be sure that they are truly remorseful. Transferring them to another school is merely moving a problem elsewhere.

In February, a similar controversy arose in SMK Kinarut in Sabah when a 16-year-old schoolgirl was reportedly converted to Islam.

Media reports quoted Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman who said their inquiry showed the girl was still a Christian and had not converted although she practised the Islamic way.

Her father, Jilius Yapoo, correctly insisted that his daughter remains a Christian, and can only decide on her own religion after she turns 18. For now, the parents have decided to transfer her and her three siblings to SMK Tun Fuad Stephens, a mission school in Kiulu, some 40km from Kota Kinabalu.

Meanwhile, the errant ustazah and her husband, also a teacher, have been transferred to religious schools in Tuaran and Inanam.

These two cases appear to reinforce the fears among parents of the rural Christian communities in both Sabah and Sarawak over what might happen if they send their children to schools with hostel facilities in the urban areas.

Away from home, the parents need to be reassured that their children are going for an education, and not a new religion.

It may be natural for teachers, especially those who are religious, to share their beliefs. But to the parents, this is a form of indoctrination.

The teachers’ responsibility is to teach, and in the case of the hostel students, to also care for their well-being as these young students are away from home.

The children are still considered minors and the law is very clear that their religion is determined by their parents until they turn 18. Obviously, any teacher who seeks to influence a conversion has entered into forbidden territory. It is also a violation of the Child Protection Act, in case these teachers are not aware of it.

Worse still, if such cases involved teachers from the peninsula, as in the Sarawak case, there will also be major political ramifications.

The Federal Government has to listen carefully to the unhappiness that is now openly expressed by the substantial Christian community in these two states.

They have proven themselves to be consistent loyal supporters of the Barisan Nasional but their support must not be taken for granted.

It is a fact that the Malay-Muslim vote in itself will not be enough to keep the Barisan in power. The coalition needs the backing of the Sabahans and Sarawakians. The Barisan politicians, in particular those from Umno who are still ignorant and arrogant, should wake up to the reality.

Christian leaders in Sabah and Sarawak, if you listen to them, will tell you of their concerns over the Islamic resurgence, led by certain federal agencies, supposedly funded by the Federal Government, in the two states.

Rightly or wrongly, perception is everything. If it is not true, then efforts must be made to reassure the people there. They are the ones who can teach us about racial and religious harmony and how diversity is truly embraced by all. They certainly do not want to see the kind of fissures in the peninsula exported across the South China Sea.

We have also come to a point where Christians who bring up such issues are attacked on the Internet by groups and individuals whose words clearly breached the Sedition Act.

Liberals and moderates have also been called all sorts of names and threatened at times. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for them to speak up, especially when they may end up in jail as a result.

But that is how the racist and religious bullies work – they want the moderates to be cowed into silence. Let us be clear that Malaysia does not belong to them.

Islam is the official religion of this country. Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, and their numbers are expected to grow even faster due to their high fertility rate.

According to the latest study by Washington-based pollster Pew Research Center, Muslims will make up 72.4% (32.7 million) of Malaysia’s projected population of 45.2 million in 2050, compared to just 63.7% (18 million) of the 28.4 million population in 2010.

The report titled The Future of World Religions also revealed that Malaysian Christians will stay at just 9.4% of the population in the next 40 years, while all other religions will see their share of the populace shrinking. The biggest decline will be the Buddhists, who will make up an estimated 10.8% of the country’s population in 2050, compared to 17.7% in 2010.

With the dominant Muslim population, politics will also be played out differently. Already we can see how the push by PAS for the implementation of hudud has put Umno in a spot, since both depend on the same racial and religious voters.

The irony is that as much as some non-Malays dislike Umno, the party is probably the best hope to stop PAS from turning Malaysia into another Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran.

If Malaysians, especially the urban Chinese, are not tactically careful or strategically clever, Malaysia will turn green – and it won’t be the Environment Party that wins, but PAS.

Likewise, Umno has to remember that it too needs the support of non-Malays. Trying to compete and outdo PAS all the time isn’t going to help.

Which brings us back to the point of why Sabah and Sarawak are so important. These two entities are not just two states within the federation. They were the ones who helped form Malaysia by merging with then Malaya and Singapore in 1963.

All of us, including the children in our schools, need to be reminded that without Sabah and Sarawak, there will be no Malaysia.

Trying to change the religious and political landscape of these two states, and in that process, stepping on the sensitivities of the people there, is plain stupidity.

But as we celebrate Easter Sunday today, forgive them we must – for they do not know what they are doing.