By: Murray Hunter

As Malaysia’s ethnic Malays have increasingly turned to traditional Islamic schools, known as pondoks or Tahfiz schools, the fact that they are largely unregulated is allowing problems to fester, including unsafe conditions, exposure to extremist teachings and especially child sexual abuse by ustazes, or teachers.

Almost 1,000 new pondoks have opened over the past six years. However, there are no reliable figures on how many there are because many are not registered. They escape Federal Ministry of Education supervision because Islamic education is a responsibility of individual states. Registered and unregistered pondoks number into the thousands with an estimated 150,000 students, some from neighboring countries of Indonesia and Thailand. This represents about 6 percent to 7 percent of Malaysia’s total secondary student population.

In recent times concerns have grown that pondoks incubate extremist teachings. A number have been closed by police although it is rarely reported.  In one reported case, local and foreign Ustazes found at a pondok in the state of Perlis were found to have connections with terrorist organizations. There have also been several fires, with one claiming 21 lives.  Severe canings have resulted in loss of life  and torture reported.

Yet one of the areas of biggest concern in pondoks and Tahfiz schools is child sexual abuse. The problem has been around a long time with only a few cases reaching the notice of authorities but:

All of the above cases were only reported after the boys returned home and told their parents, after which police reports were made against the teachers and wardens.

Pondoks are perfect places for Ustazes to groom their victims. Students are vulnerable as they believe the school is a holy place and hold their teachers in an extremely high regard. The inclination of students is to please their teachers. Malaysia has the highest power-distance culture in the world in which a leader’s position at the top of the hierarchy is accepted without question. This high power-distance culture means students can easily fall vulnerable to paternalistic leaders and obediently comply.

The high power-distance culture and the fact that discussion about sex is taboo in Malaysia to some degree protects Ustazes from being found out.  There is a great hesitancy on the part of students to tell anybody about such encounters, partly explaining why there are so many unreported cases.

Research has also shown that Malays poorly understand what constitutes sexual abuse. The concept of rape and abuse is construed as occurring without consent and by force. In most of the cases within the pondoks, grooming and persuasion precede sexual abuse and/or rape. Thus, after any sexual acts the students feel shy, depressed, cheated, and most of all guilty about what happened and keep the experience to themselves. Some even fear that if they talk, they would be forced to leave, disappointing their parents. In one case, parents were still sending their children to an unlicensed pondok that was at the center of sexual abuse claims.

Even more tragically, some students have come from an abusive home background which is taken advantage of by predatory ustazes.

Ustazes are not the only people sexually abusing students. Senior students also groom younger students for sex. Adolescence is a time where students are discovering their own sexuality. There is a lot of anxiety related to this in such closed single-sex environments. In some cases, early victims discover their own gay orientations, while others are traumatised by these sexual encounters with no one to console them or seek help from.

There are also cases of sexual bullying. Two ustazes in Kuantan threatened to cut off an 8-year-old student’s penis. On a visit to pondoks in Northern Malaysia earlier this year the writer heard stories of students sexually bullying other students.

There is little or no training available to assist those in authority in tackling these problems. The taboos prevent students from seeking help from authorities and consequently there is no way the victim can seek assistance to handle their trauma.

Past governments have hidden the problem of child sexual abuse and rape in pondoks and Tahfiz schools. Statistics and data are very difficult to come by, and a study by the Department of Social Welfare is locked away under the Official Secrets Act.

The current Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail,  also the Minister for Women, Family and Community Development, said soon after coming to office that the protection of children from sexual abuse should be of the highest priority. However she has only called for the strengthening of laws against child sexual abuse and proposed that ASEAN set up a database on international paedophiles.

Other than advising parents to be more vigilant and releasing a video in collaboration with Google to teach kindergarten students what is safe, Wan Azizah has not proposed any tangible action plan by government to solve the problem, even with the shocking cases that came to public attention just after the Pakatan Harapan coalition won office.

Legislative action against child sexual abuse is only lip service. Tougher penalties don’t act as a deterrent, especially so as there is no governing body to ensure the implementation of child protection policies in pondoks.

Child sexual abuse is a problem within a problem. The whole pondok/Tahfiz school industry is unregulated with as many as 1,000 schools unregistered. They need to not only be registered but policed before the problem of child sexual abuse can be tackled.

Although doctors and hospitals are legally required to report child sexual abuse cases, most cases never get to a doctor or hospital. Victims are left to cope with their trauma by themselves, often leading to feelings of guilt, low self-esteem and depression. Drug abuse and unstable relationships in later life often occur.

When the internal management becomes aware of sexual abuse within their own school, the problem is usually swept under the carpet, sometimes even with the victim expelled to keep up the good name of the school.  Within this culture pondoks remain an environment rife for child sexual abuse for years to come unless there is some honest public discussion and serious action.

However, finding solutions will be difficult in a country where attitudes towards sexuality are terribly skewed towards the irrational. Homosexuality carries with it, even if groomed or forced, a stigma. Ministers and government officials make unfounded and irrational statements about rape, abuse and LGBT. Victims are often blamed and sometimes are forced to marry the rapist. Child marriage is still not banned, yet consenting adults can go to jail for sodomy.

The intertwining of politics and sodomy has damaged the country, where the filth of sodomy politics makes it much more difficult for a victim to speak out. Excessive punishments that have taken lives, horror stories of sexual abuse and rape, pondok fires putting the lives of children in danger are a wake-up call for complacent authorities. Schools need to be registered and Ustazes screened, licensed and accredited. Enforcement officers need to follow up after schools have been registered to check on safety, education standards, and personnel.

On a national basis, children need to be taught what type of touching by adults is inappropriate. It needs more than a video; it needs in-class instruction. Parents must also be made aware to take seriously any accusations made by their children about incidents at school. Counselling and trained social welfare officers must be assessible to students on a regular basis so they can make a report and seek assistance if needed. Support systems must be created to deal with child sexual abuse rather than whitewashing the problem with more legislation that can’t be enforced.

Children have to be taught that it’s OK to stand up to someone in authority who has made improper advances, no matter who they are. This will probably be the hardest reform to achieve, as it requires a total reframing of Malay culture. It’s time that the taboo of talking about sexuality and unquestioned blind subservience to authority get out of the way, so children will be safe.

Murray Hunter is a Southeast Asia-based development specialist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.