Sultan irked over lack of religious education
By Azlan Othman & Fadhil Yunus

His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam pointed out several faults in a thought-provoking titah yesterday as the monarch made a working visit to Seri Begawan Religious Teachers University College in Jln Tutong and Al-Falaah Religious School in Jln Muara.

In the hard-hitting titah, the monarch spoke about the failure of the education authorities to make religious school education compulsory even after 50 years and a higher institution organising gala nights after its convocation with graduates wearing inappropriate attire and aping the western style as reported in the media and Internet.

The monarch also highlighted the need to speed up the construction of a new building for Al-Falaah Religious School, which has long been overdue, as it has reached its full enrollment capacity, and the lack of statistics to identify the number of students who did not go to religious schools, while questioning the wisdom of officials who wait for instructions before carrying our their tasks.

In the question and answer session during the working visit, His Majesty first inquired on the Al-Falaah school, which is getting crowded and could not accept any more new students.

The monarch inquired on the update of the new school site and called on concerned authorities to speed up the process. "Finding a way to solve this issue is important. It is not the time to exchange letters but a phone call will do to solve pending issues like land. They need to discuss it. If I had not made a visit (this morning), it would not have been solved even after 10 years.

"The Islamic Religious Council (MUIS) has approved it several years ago. The school is now full and they have to reject new applications. This problem can be solved if there is a willingness," His Majesty added.

The Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, Pehin Udana Khatib Dato Paduka Seri Setia Ustaz Hj Awg Badaruddin responded by saying that an architect has been appointed and a tender opened to elect the suitable contractor and they are now sorting out issues like land and building.

On the issue of the number of students who don't attend religious school, an officer from the Islamic Education Institute (IPI) said based on a study by IPI last year, 712 children did not go to religious school and 1,089 children did not complete their religious education. Since then 209 students have been registered.

He also said that a plan is in the pipeline to review the act and a draft was completed and forwarded to the AG's Chamber last year.

His Majesty said 20 or 30 years ago, many religious schools were constructed unlike today. "This might be one of the reasons why parents are not inclined to send their children to religious schools," the ruler added.

On organising gala nights after the convocation, His Majesty asked whether it was relevant to organise it. "Why should success (after the convocation) be mixed with gala night and entertainment. It would be better to organise a thanksgiving ceremony. The gala night was even attended by high-ranking officials. There are other ways to celebrate it besides holding a gala night," the monarch said.

The ruler said, social illnesses were on the rise and happening in houses, schools, higher institutions and other places. Misuse of drugs, unruly behaviour, and casual sex are now not hidden but cover the front pages of newspapers, magazines and Internet as if the parents are helpless and incapable of functioning.

"In this situation, we still have the medicine, which is the religious education. I am convinced that we could still cure the social illness through this medicine. Hence, I stand firm to emphasise that religious studies is compulsory in SPN 21 and should not be clubbed along with other subjects, which is not right.

"In this context, I see the importance of religious school education and want to know why it has not been made compulsory all these years. For 50 years, we have this liberal system and yet there are no changes being made. The system is in a freeze and there is a need for change.

"By not making religious school education compulsory, we create a gap among people who are literate and illiterate in terms of religious education. Why should this happen? Do we consider the current system good and if so, what is the reason?" asked the ruler.

"It has been 50 years that this non-compulsory system has been carried out and there is no effort to revise and review the good and bad effects and we have continued to be silent for 50 years.

"Haven't we noticed any undesirable outcome from such silence? For 50 years, the people have been left to choose whether they need to go to religious school or not. Is this the right approach?

"Recently, the relevant authorities called on the parents or the public to ask their children to attend religious schools. This is not a matured approach but rather what the Malay proverb says, 'Melepaskan Batuk Di Tangga' or not serious in doing things. Those who happened to hear would have taken note, but those who did not would be many. This is not the way to do it.

"The right way is to review the system, whether it is appropriate for not making it compulsory, what is the gain and loss. If the country gains, just maintain it, but if there is a loss, we must do something and not keep silent.

"Have the relevant parties conducted any survey or compiled statistics like how many families send their children to school and how many Islamic children go to religious school?

"Such survey, I believe, is crucial as it helps to find out problems and for us to improve any shortfalls. Due to lack of statistics, we have continued 'to sleep' for 50 long years. In my opinion, the parties should take steps to compile statistics, not just limited to one or two years, but at least covering the last 10 to 20 years.

"If we can compile statistics for diseases like cancer, HIV, heart and so on, there is no reason for us not to compile one on religious education. We are yet to hear and read statistics of school children who are able to pray, recite Quran or otherwise. Is it not important?" asked His Majesty.

"Personally, I see there are still a lot of people who are religiously illiterate. This is evident as youths and teenagers are seen still playing close to the dusk prayer. At schools and higher institutions, there are still issues like people keeping religion aside such as when organising functions by copying western style in their dresses and attitudes, which has been reported in the media and Internet and this worries many parents.

"How could this happen? Does this indicate that there is religious illiteracy and is this due to the fact that attending religious school has not been made compulsory for the last 50 years. In short, we could come across many shortfalls due to a weak educational system where the religious spirit is not flourishing," said His Majesty.

"Another latest news is there is no religious education in the Nursing College. In foreign countries, there is news that an Islamic style of treatment has been introduced at hospitals but at our own institutions, we have removed religious knowledge. Where is the wisdom and talk about upholding the 'Negara Zikir' slogan?" His Majesty asked.

"I am surprised that religious matters are handled slowly. Why? For instance, the project to construct mosques has been planned for many years but there is no news until today."

His Majesty added the construction of Al-Falaah school has been approved for many years but till today nothing has been done. "Has it got to do with budget allocation or is it deliberately delayed?" asked the monarch.

"No doubt, people would lose belief on the school as they are not comfortable with the school conditions and facilities.

"Didn't it cross our mind that the more we delay the project the higher would be the cost to build it? Who would be responsible, not just 'Baitul-Mal' but the school authorities themselves who may have to shoulder the burden to pay more as it takes a long time to settle the dues compared to six or seven years ago," said His Majesty. - Borneo Bulletin (27th January 2010)