Letter: Terengganu Education Department, are you not listening?

By Maria Chin Abdullah, Executive Director of Empower

Empower notes with much disappointment that the State Education director Razali Daud does
not seem to understand the concerns raised by the women’s groups as well as other civil
society organisations.

We are concerned because:

a) There is a total disrespect for the rights of the children, given that Malaysia has signed
on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and passed a Child Act to reflect
the principles of CRC. Were the children even consulted, given briefings or asked for their
opinion if they want to be part of the programme?

b) To date, there is no explanation from the Besut State Education director on why and
how they have classified these boys as being effeminate.

c) Why does feminine characteristics need fixing?
(and I quote the director):
NST, 18 April 2011 “The four-day camp in Besut, the first-ever to be held here, started
yesterday. It is to help address the problem afflicting secondary schoolboys. They were
listed by their schools who were instructed last year to identify students who displayed
feminine qualities,” said department director Razali Daud.”

And again he reiterated on NST, 21 April 2011 The first batch is made up of boys, aged
between 13 and 17, who happen to display some feminine characteristics.”

d) Does the Besut State Education department understand that by putting the boys into such
camps, he and his department is perpetuating restrictive gender stereotyping and
negating all other behaviours as abnormal?

e) Is the Besut Education department sensitive to the tremendous psychological effect and
trauma that such camps have on the children? How are they going to face their classmates
when they get back to school, when their friends know they have gone for these “boot
camps”? Will they be ostracized by their classmates? Will they not be continuously made fun
of, bullied or made into the laughing stock of their schools? How would the child feel when
he is constantly told that he is not “normal”?

f) If such camps were “part of the department’s Patriotism Integration Programme for
this year, aimed at improving the level of awareness among students of their duties to
the nation”, how does singling out these children and classifying them as being
effeminate help in making patriots out of them, for the nation that is now saying that
it may not stand by them, if they behave “differently”?

It is not only the fact that such camps will straitjacket the children into a skewed understanding
of their own sexuality but of greater concern is the emotional and psychological effects
that the children will have to suffer. In our zest to have the perfect education system, have we
become so removed and disconnected from being compassionate towards children’s feelings,
views and sensitivities?

To add salt to injury, Siti Aminah Omar, a lecturer in psychology at Universiti Teknologi Mara
blamed the parents for unknowingly causing “their sons to acquire feminine qualities by dressing
them up in “girlie” clothes at a young age, make them do housework without explaining the role
of both genders in the society or due to the father being too strict.” In many ways, Siti Aminah
is reinforcing the very stereotype that needs to be broken. “Girls can’t climb trees, boys don’t
do housework, girls wear dresses and boys wear pants”. But times have changed and social
relationships have become more complex, complicated and there are differences. By continuing
to highlight these differences as unacceptable, we are guilty of being discriminatory and even
creating threatening environments against those classified as “abnormal”.

When we streamline people’s behaviour, attitudes and thinking into only one socially accepted
norm, we are not progressing as a nation. For more than 50 years, we have worked with a
traditional educational system in which students listen and teachers teach. There is no room for
questioning. We are supposed to have moved on under the Transformation programme as the
government is supposedly encouraging critical thinking in our children so that they can better
cope with the real world.

The ill-thought out action of the Education Department certainly does not help to build critical
thinking students. Sadly, the state department director does not realise that the damage he
and his department have done and that is to further constrict thinking and creativity of students.
They have made them into the three monkeys – see not, hear not, speak not.

The deafening silence of the Ministry of Education does not garner well in defending the rights of
the children.

It only goes to prove that having the right policies and signing international instruments are mere
paper promises. The Besut case is stark evidence that there is a serious disparate between
what policy makers and setters want for the nation and how the ‘implementators’ perceive and
carry them out. Unfortunately the under-represented and muted voices are not given a chance.
The victims, in this case the children, have to suffer the consequences because of foolhardy
decisions and views made and held by adults.