The Tragic Case of a Lunch Meal: Revisiting Corporal Punishment in Schools

Considering the lack of consideration for the rights of the child in the recent case of the pork lunch meal caning.

On November 5th 2010, a mother complained to the Sarawak Education Department that her son was caned by his teacher for bringing pork to school. As you notice (of which I hope you do), I did not mention the religious or ethnic background of the boy at all. There are two reasons why I left out those layers of fact.

ebony, ivory, living together in harmony

Ebony, ivory, living together in harmony

First, I felt sick with how recently our Statesman, bureaucrats or politicians are missing the plot to this sad incident. The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz for example, call for an investigation of the boy’s religious status before conclusions can be drawn on why he was caned. Our independent Parliamentarian, Zulkifli Nordin utilized this issue against PAS and got into an unnecessary argument with Dr. Zulkifly Ahmad, another Parliamentarian from the Islamic Party. Apparently, the righteous fight and egoistical call to defend Islam trumps a poor child’s “wrong” selection of lunch meal.

Secondly, the issue turned into a cliche religious debate albeit the fact that the real concern is not so much about the boy’s religious status but why he was even caned in the first place. Is it in the best interest of the boy as a child, to be caned, whipped or spanked over his private choice of lunch? The Disciplinary Guidelines for Headmasters and Teachers 1988 clearly spelled the procedures for corporal punishment in school. It clearly indicates how caning is not a disciplinary action that can be undertaken by just any teacher. Specific power is given to the headmaster to execute the punishment and the requirements for delegation of power to cane was also expressed in the Guideline. In other words, caning in school is supposed to be exercised with due care and caution.

On top of that realisation, I attended the National Consultation to Review the School Disciplinary Regulations organized by the Ministry of Education in my former capacity as an officer with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia a few years ago. There were extensive discussions on the use of corporal punishment against children in school by educators, parents and civil society during the consultation. The strong justification for such use to be continued is due to the argument that children nowadays are difficult to control and discipline.

Reflecting on those enlightening discussions I had during the consultation, I wonder now whether bringing pork to school would amount to being difficult and undisciplined. Even more worrying is whether our present educators are capable of assessing a school offence objectively without succumbing to their own personal values and bias?

In discussing the use of corporal punishment in school, it is important for us to revisit our human rights commitment where child rights are concerned. When Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1995, it accepts fully the provisions of Article 28 (2) that details the approach to disciplinary measures in school. The Article states that;

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.

Corporal punishment is obviously inconsistent with human rights principles. Since the consultation I attended and with this latest incident further eroding my trust and confidence in our education system, I wonder whether we can see a more progressive change to the school disciplinary regulations in Malaysia that puts a child’s interest and well being as its primary consideration.

This issue is not a mere case of a religiously dysfunctional family’s controversial choice of meat. It also exposes how our education system handles the questions of personal choices in a heterogeneous society. Should we resort to force and imposing ideals every time we catch a person committing something that is in conflict with our own personal beliefs and choices? What happened to human compassion and respect?

I completely understand why the incident is stirring hostility from many sectors but as we attempt to make sense of the issue using our set of experiences, fears, prejudices and limited understandings, we forget that the real victim here is the little boy. Not only was he caned for bringing to school a lunch meal that was prepared by his mother, his religious status and private life is now open to public probe.

I am a firm believer that as a Muslim, using physical force against a child or accusing an Islamic Party for allowing the sin of eating pork to be committed by other fellow Muslims will not resolve anything. If we seriously have concerns with how our Muslim brothers or sisters behave, wouldn’t showing love and respect counts as an effective step to reconcile our differences or hostilities? Isn’t that what Islam is all about?

Shazeera is back in school. She will be in the Cold and Distant Land of York for a year pursuing her MA in Applied Human Rights. Despite that, she still detests PERKASA and misses the political drama in Malaysia.


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Shazeera is a Malay Muslim that is still unable to understand why groups like PERKASA exist. But as long as they are around, she will be around too.

Posted on 17 November 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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13 Responses to The Tragic Case of a Lunch Meal: Revisiting Corporal Punishment in Schools

  1. Tasha

    It baffles me why is the choice of food of a private individual was such a huge concern, that a child was punished like this. I am a Muslim and have no problem with others around me eating pork. Malaysia is really regressive and authorities should realize that even though its a country of Muslim majority, minority rights should be respected. And secondly, how the bloodly hell is canning even allowed in school, for anything!

  2. sera

    the school was a mission school, how it become sk i don't know.

  3. shazeera

    hello everyone,

    Thanks for the concern and responses provided. Similarly like all of you, I am trying to seek for the best way to deal with these sort of incidents that I am sure will happen again and again in our country. This is what living in a plural society is all about- we will come across uncomfortable incidents that will challenge our mindsets about race and religion but that does not mean, every time it happens, we swept our responses under the carpet or pretend that it is no big deal. Or in most of the cases, we expect the ruling power or religious institutions to always spearhead the "appropriate" responses or actions to address these issues. As rakyat, I believe we need to reclaim the space for such discourse and try to find the best solutions using our own experiences dealing with one another. I am happy to see from the comments that some of us are sharing some of your own experiences here and that is a positive indication that not ALL our experiences living with one another is ugly and worthless. As i am trained in the human rights field, I am trying to see if human rights can be used as a tool to promote a better race relations or inter-faith understanding in the country. I also believe that we all can try to dig deeper into our own experience or expertise to see if we can bring some ideas to the table as well. I look forward to more of these discourse in the future! :-)

  4. LN

    I've had luncheon meat sandwiches for recess when I was in primary school. My mum made them and I just took them to school. I ate them during recess with my friends which were a mixture of Malays, Indians and Chinese. I didn't offer them to my Malay friends but my point is, during those days (the 80's), we just weren't THIS sensitive about such things. Having said that, during those days, boys in my brother's school (Aminuddin Baki) would be subject to caning if they got into fights. In fact, legend has it that an MBS headmaster made sure the recipient of the rotan could be heard over the P.A system installed in every class. It may be that corporal punishment is a no-no in recent times due to heightening awareness of human rights but it was not a big deal 2 decades ago and before. Parents sought clarification then but they trusted the teachers more then too. These days, parents won't hesitate to complain if any teacher so much as lay a finger on their kids even if the teacher may have a good explanation. The reality of today's schooling environment is that discipline in schools is dropping, the quality of teachers is dropping and coupled with a rise in anti-corporal punishment parents (which some teachers equate with pampered, spoilt kids who probably need a spank of two), the nett result seems to be "overreaction" on the part of educators. In the case of this poor 10 year old, 10 smacks of the cane on whatever part of the body is excessive. He's 10 years old lah. And it's LUNCH. Even if it was non-halal, it wasn't like he was caught forcing it down the throat of a Muslim friend or expounding the wonders of pork to him. Compare this "crime" with a hypothetical situation where a 10 year old boy makes a Muslim teacher in a tudung cry by sticking Hello Kitty stickers on the tudung. If you want to overreact, overreact over this. EVEN SO…in both cases, a PHONE CALL should be made to the parents FIRST to inform them of the "crime" before any punishment should be meted out. It allows for possibilities of misunderstandings to be cleared before something so drastic is performed on a child whose self esteem is delicate during the growing years.

  5. bujang

    Re: Tragic lunch box case

    Much have been said on the matter. Putting aside the wrong done by the teacher concerned, I feel and would blame our so9 callled Malaysia leaders. As Ministers/ybs/politcians in power, please dont think of self only. Why create racial tensions. people of sarawak with her multiracial cutures have been living peacefully since british rule and indepnednence. We be malay dayak or chinese sit together eat together irrespective of what you like to eat or order. No one is supreme in one's relegion as everyone has to go back the almight. For goodness sake so called educated ruling and power surging leaders please use your head and bring harmony instead of divisions.

  6. melvis

    there are other ways to punish children and pain isn't one of them.

    is corporal punishment even legal in the malaysian education system?

  7. blueberry

    i actually agree to Zarul Wong and Jason Kay.

    It’s bad enough that schools are not allowed to "sell non-halal food"….

    Why? Why, no enough food and asking for non halal?

    So you can assimilate other people too?

    If this boy are going to Chinese school, it is okay. but think again why this boy goes to a SK?

    Other people also have human rights too.

  8. Casper,

    Hello. On the JAKIM authority issue, I only managed to find:-

    1. Jakim Asked To Investigate Beginda's Religious Status – Nazri – Bernama, 10th Nov 2010 – http://goo.gl/aoYyc

    2. Boy’s pork lunch snowballs into status of father’s faith – Malaysian Insider – 14th Nov 2010 – http://goo.gl/WW9Pv

    In both articles, nothing was mentioned about JAKIM not having any standing to investigate.

    Jason

  9. casper

    Agreed Lynn, the poor child inadvertently became a victim over a policy(if there is one, which I doubt) that beggars believe. And if I'm not mistaken, Taxi Boy Nazri commented that JAKIM can't pursue the matter, investigate and get to the bottom of this misadventure because it has no standing ! WTF Nazri ?

    Instead of addressing the problem, this 'haprak' UMNO mouthpiece is trying to let things slide and fingers crossed, no one remembers and everybody forgets !!!

    The parents should SUE state education for laying their hands on the child. Seems to me, the corporal punishment was a personal reaction of one particular idiot but since no one has come forth to address the wrong, I feel the parents should take personal action to seek recourse – don't want to sound litigious but what else is one to do ?

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  11. Lynn

    Jason,as a non-Muslim, we do have rights and the only proper recourse is to complain to the Education Department as it concerned a School Senior Assistant acting out of authority. If we do not stand up for our rights which are seriously being eroded by little napeoleons and religious ultras, we would end up with no rights but be forced to assimilate Muslim culture!

    And Zaurul, the boy in question is a 10-year old non-Muslim and the lunch was prepared by his Christian mother. As a young boy,does he even have a choice in his lunch meal? As a non-Muslim mother, why can't my son have the lunch I prepare? Whether it's halal to Muslims or not is not her concern, it's only a lunch for her son, not to be shared with other Muslim students. It's bad enough that schools are not allowed to sell non-halal food, now they can't even bring their own food from home???? Our rights to our religious beliefs and freedom is guaranteed in the Federal Constitution and we need to reclaim that right!!! Don't even talk about the human rights of the boy!!

  12. Zarul Wong

    @ Jason Kay

    I agree with your points. I don't understand what the parents were thinking when they did this to their child. In this regard, the blame should be put squarely and entirely on the parents for putting the child through this.

    It would be alright if they weren't Muslims to begin with. I remember growing up, non-Muslim kids would on occasion bring pork for recess and no one batted an eyelid because they were non-Muslims. Of course, I suppose it depends on the school.

    Did they not even imagine what would happen? What sort of imaginary world do they live in? This is Malaysia, as Jason said. It's just not worth it, really.

  13. If the intended reason for the mother bringing forward her complain was only to highlight the wrong that is the caning of her son, surely she would have realised (or have been advised by her political friends) that it is BEYOND NAIVE to expect that her family's RELIGION would not have been brought to the fore eventually. This is Malaysia lah. You know the score. Touch on sensitive topic, gloves come off – lucky in this case, the gloves didn't really come off. If this was supposed to be a test case about whether or not pork can be brought to government schools for private consumption, the person advising for it to be a test case is probably the DUMBEST tactician ever (or have not been living in Malaysia long enough).