Wednesday, December 6

Involving school children on foreign policy stance counter-productive


Pupils are too young to be able to discern the causes and the effects of the war between Hamas and Israel. — Bernama photo

I AM referring to the controversy over the participation of schoolchildren in Sarawak in the programme known as ‘Solidarity Week with Palestine’, which ran from Oct 29 until Nov 3, 2023.

On Oct 7, 2023, another war flared up in the Middle East.

Not a surprise at all – wars have become the tradition of the people in that part of the world since time immemorial.

The current conflict in the Gaza Strip between the Jews and the Arabs there has its roots in the long history of racial violence between the descendants of people of the same stock (Semitic).

I have not the slightest doubt that many mature educators in Malaysia are familiar with the chronology of events that took place following the fall of the 400-year-old Ottoman Empire in 1918. They must have read about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1916; about how the victors carving out for themselves parcels of the territories of the former Turkish Empire.

They must have read about the Balfour Declaration, 1917; why the Arabs had objected to that Declaration; about the creation of two nations in Palestine, one for the Arabs and the other for the Jews (to accommodate the Jewish Diaspora and survivors of the Holocaust).

They must have read about how the Arabs in Palestine had attacked the Jews, leading to retaliations and to more conflicts… wars, wars and wars.

These are not good lessons for schoolchildren in this multiracial, multicultural and multi-religious society of ours. Policy-makers must not expose our young children to political/religious controversies at this stage of their personal development.

They will have the chance to study the literature on the history of those wars when they can think objectively without the influence of the elders who take sides in the quarrel between cousins, so to speak.

It is my personal opinion that most of the problems between Hamas and Israel have no direct bearing on most ordinary Malaysians. Yet, somehow or other, we have been dragged into it.

On Oct 21, 2023, the Office of the Deputy Director-General of Education (School Operations Sector) sent out a circular announcing the approval by the Ministry of Education of a week-long programme called ‘Solidarity with Palestine’. It would involve participation by all education institutions under the ministry – that is to say, schools, vocational colleges, matriculation colleges, teachers’ education institutes.

The theme of this programme revolved around the principles of peace and humanity (no aggression; without extremes).

There would have been no controversy over this theme if the noble purpose is easily reconcilable with the need, it seemed, for participation by all schoolchildren including those in Sarawak.

The activities would include: launch of the activities at the school-level during morning assembly; launch of a monetary fund for the benefit of the Palestinians; video shows and singing of songs of which the tunes and lyrics relevant to the issue of the Palestinians; activities relating to ‘kerohanian’ (spirituality) for the Muslim students; special curriculum such as song-writing competitions; poem reading, posters and other suitable activities.

Donation to the fund is voluntary. No problem with acts of charity as such.

There would have been no issue at all if that programme would involve participation by groups of adults in the educational institutions only. That is because the adult Malaysians are deemed to be mature and are supposed to know about the real causes for that raging war between Hamas and Israel.

Indeed, it is anybody’s right to lend support or not to support either party to a conflict such as a war or a soccer match, but to drag directly schoolchildren into what many Sarawakians (me included) consider as not being part of the normal school curriculum would be counter-productive in terms of quality education.

The young children, being pupils of government-run and taxpayers-funded schools, would be forced by circumstances to take sides in a quarrel the real cause(s) of which they know practically little, except the information from the social media.

And coverage and dissemination of news by most social media of the Hamas-Israel war are saturated with propaganda and counter propaganda and misinformation and counter misinformation.

It is my opinion, as a former teacher and keen observer of anything educational that children – except, perhaps, the prodigies in the primary schools in Sarawak – are not in a position to discern between the impartial news reporting and the faking of information.

Apart from some politicians, many ordinary people in Sarawak are keeping silent over this issue.

They are following the developments of the war all right, but they prefer to mind their own business. They have other more pressing problems to attend to, more urgent and more beneficial than arguing heatedly for and against either Israel or Hamas, without tangible benefit.

The war between Hamas and Israel will not stop until kingdom come, with or without our verbal help.

Many parents of children still in school were worried about ‘victimisation’ by the school authorities should their children not participate in the Palestine Week.

They were somewhat relieved when YB Chong Chieng Jen, MP, made a statement that he had ‘confirmed with the Deputy Minister of Education that it is not compulsory for schools in Sarawak to organise the programme’ (The Borneo Post, Oct 27, 2023).

Thank you, YB Chong, for the initiative to seek clarification from the horse’s mouth. You have done the most sensible thing. It would have been better, of course, if the relevant ministry itself had issued an official clarification to this effect, much earlier.

By mid-week, a cursory check carried out by some reporters/stringers of The Borneo Post had found no unusual activities at the schools observed in certain districts in Sarawak. It was just as well that the school managers in the state had the option: not to participate in this particular exercise. Otherwise, they could have been victimised for not toeing the federal government’s line.

I hope they would not be queried by the authorities for not actively participating in the activities set out in the circular letter from the Office of the Deputy Director General of Education (School Operations Sector), above.

This is not an act of defying the federal government’s edict at all, but it was a sensible or common sense move out of respect for the concerns or sensitivities of many parents and, don’t forget, the grandparents in the state.

Repeat, at this stage of their personal development, our loved ones are limited in their mental capacity of discerning as to how and why Hamas and the Israelis are at war, or of distinguishing between facts and fiction produced by the propaganda machines of both parties to the conflict.