Overzealousness on the part of several schools in the country in connection with their Palestine Solidarity Week programme may have exposed an area of concern in the Malaysian civil service and the country’s education system.
In matters of religion, it seems there is a tendency towards the fanatical, often at the expense of common sense.
It is frightening to think that some of the perpetrators are educators tasked with shaping the minds of our nation’s future leaders.
Perhaps the excitement of the build-up was all too much for some that they chose to launch their programmes well in advance of dates set by the education ministry.
The solidarity week was meant to run from Oct 29 to Nov 3. Overeager organisers beat the gun after a video clip of one such event went viral 10 days before the campaign was scheduled to start.
Retired schoolteachers joked that the school principal and his charges had never shown as much zeal on academic matters.
This raises the question of who is actually in charge. Are government ministers in control or is there a deep state in the civil service operating on its own terms?
In fact, some would suggest it is consistent with recent trends which have seen civil servants openly supporting the opposition.
Government servants would not have voted for the opposition with that much fervour during the six decades when Barisan Nasional was in power.
Likewise, schools would never have carried out such programmes without first receiving an official directive.
Some will claim the change to be a positive sign, but to many others it suggests a civil service working with the opposition to undermine the government of the day.
If true, that would spell trouble.
Viral video clips showing teachers and students brandishing toy firearms have drawn the ire of right-thinking Malaysians, but with the education ministry initially silent, questionable programmes were run, risking the communication of misinformation to impressionable young minds.
Following a Cabinet meeting last week, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim announced the government’s support of the education ministry’s solidarity week initiative but stressed the need to bring it under control.
The ministry itself then took certain schools to task for running programmes with extremist and radical elements. It also said the use of replica weapons, icons and symbols in a provocative and confrontational manner was strictly prohibited.
But will any action be taken against those responsible for violating guidelines in a misplaced show of religious fervour? Or will there be soft-pedalling on actions that have marred the image of our teachers, schools and the education system simply to appease the conservative vote bank, for fear of a backlash if action is taken?
Unusually slow response by DAP
DAP, a senior partner in the unity government, took more than a week to say its piece, a far cry from how swiftly the party used to act when in the opposition.
The party said it was disappointed with the display of elements of violence, including the use of the replica weapons, and called for action to be taken.
Unusually, the statement came only after the Cabinet discussed the matter.
Isn’t the DAP part of the government? Isn’t one of its MPs the deputy education minister? Is the party bending backwards so much in its bid to remain in power that it fears using its position to insist that Anwar put a stop to this dangerous trend?
The party may say it would not want to touch on religious issues affecting Muslims in the country but surely it realises that the actions of some schools have broken the bounds of decency and sensibility and pose a threat to all Malaysians, irrespective of ethnicity. National unity is bound to suffer.
Even a group of elected representatives from PKR got together and issued a statement asking the government, which the party leads, to review its decision to hold the solidarity week programme.
The irony is that the prime minister and education minister are both from that party.
Pushback in the east
Schools in Sabah and Sarawak have now been told by their state governments that the solidarity week programme is not compulsory, while the head of mission schools has announced that they will skip the directive. The coalitions leading these two states also form part of the unity government.
In a separate episode, Sarawak openly rebuffed a warning from Anwar last week that any communication with government departments written other than in the Malay language will not be entertained.
In an immediate response, state secretary Abu Bakar Marzuki said the directive does not apply to Sarawak, where state laws allow the use of English for official purposes, in the legislature and in the courts.
All these incidents, worryingly, show a public disconnect between various parties in the unity government and the government itself.
Recently, government leaders appear to have ramped up efforts to use race, religion and language issues in an apparent bid to win the hearts and minds of Malay voters.
Many are convinced that the Anwar-led unity government is trying to outdo PAS with its own Islamist agenda.
The problems arising from the Palestinian Solidarity Week campaign in schools show the dangers of taking that battle too far.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.