90% of religious school teachers are not qualified

The numbers are numbing.

Nine out of 10 teachers at sekolah agama rakyat schools do not have basic teaching qualifications. Five out of 10 principals at SARs do not have a degree.

With their students hemmed into mediocrity like a photo in a frame, this is what they produced during last year's O-level examinations:

Only three in 10 SAR students passed all of their subjects, compared with six out 10 students from the national school system.

Only 10 per cent of SAR students scored an A grade in Islamic education, a subject in which they were expected to shine. National schools had a higher percentage of top scorers in the subject.

This depressing picture is one of the reasons that the Mahathir administration has moved to halt annual grants to 268 SARs across the country.

The government also believes that in some of these schools, a narrow and deviant brand of Islam is being drummed into young minds - where the singing of the national anthem is prohibited and death through martyrdom is glorified.

In some schools, students are encouraged to attend opposition political rallies and take part in weekly oratory contests where the topics are exclusively anti-government.

The government says it has lost confidence in SARs because they have ceased to be institutions of learning. But it will not order their closure.

But cutting off funding is as good as turning off the life support machine of a patient, argues Mr Mahfuz Omar, leader of Parti Islam SeMalaysia's (PAS) youth wing.

He and others of his ilk believe the SARs have become the centrepiece in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the Malays between Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the conservative Islamic PAS.

They reason that the ruling party wants the conveyor belt that has the potential to produce more than 60,000 Islamic scholars annually to slowly grind to a halt.

When that day comes, the supply of men and women willing to wear the green and white of PAS will drop.

Mr Hata Haji Imran, principal of Maahad Tarbiah Islamiah in Changkat Jering, is aware of the mercury-raising debate on the ground over the funding freeze.

'There is a campaign for the people's minds over sekolah agama rakyat. Some people are less discerning and they believe what they hear or read. But we are surviving.'

Since the beginning of the year, 100 students have transferred from Maahad Tarbiah Islamiah to national schools. But the school that grew from a shed in the 1950s to a three-storey building with a hostel in the 1990s, thanks to state government funding, maintains a robust enrolment of 700 students.

About 60 per cent of the students are children from nearby villages, and quite a few of their parents are members of the ruling party.

Mr Hata hides his political sympathies but says he is puzzled by the government's sudden fixation with the poor qualifications of teaching staff at SARs. He says that the better qualified teachers apply to join government-funded religious schools, leaving private religious schools to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

It is the same case with students, he adds. The smarter ones gain admission into fully-funded religious institutions and the rest find their way into SARs.

'We are handling the residue and trying our best to give them an education. In fact, we are doing the government a favour,' he said.

Not in the eyes of ruling party politicians. For a number of years, they have complained that these schools lean towards opposition parties. Just as politics and religion have become so intertwined in Malay life, so have politics and the operation of SARs.

Senior Umno Youth officials left a closed-door briefing on the SARs last week with an even stronger belief that the Mahathir administration was moving in the right direction by ending funding of the schools.

Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, an Umno Youth excecutive committee member, said: 'What we have in SARs are students of poor quality being given poor quality education, and at times exposed to deviant teachings. This is a disastrous and dangerous combination.'

The government's answer to this situation is to improve Islamic education in national schools, including making Arabic a compulsory subject for Muslims. It hopes that more Muslim parents will transfer their children from SARs to national schools.

It will not be easy for the authorities. At a religious school in Yan, Kedah, the teachers have been drumming into parents and children that overcoming challenges and difficulties is part of being a follower of Prophet Muhammad.

The sessions are reaping some dividends. Even the very poor are offering to scrape together money to keep the school alive.