By Siti Hajar
His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam expressed his concern on the lack of infrastructural development in the country's Arabic schools located in the Brunei-Muara District in a titah delivered yesterday following the monarch's surprise visits to Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Damit Arabic Religious Secondary School for Girls (SUAMPRIPAD), Arabic Preparatory School, Bandar Seri Begawan as well as the Hassanal Bolkiah Arabic Boys' Secondary School for Boys (SMALHB).
Addressing several senior government officials from various ministries as well as the school staff, His Majesty pointed that almost half a century of both secondary schools' existence should prompt local authorities to evaluate the institutions' direction and development in order to accommodate the growing number of potential students who apply to study at the revered education institutions in the country.
Referring to the most populous area that is Brunei-Muara, His Majesty stressed that the district "should already have additional school buildings apart from the ones that are already in existence".
"Why should it have to be this way?" His Majesty queried as he referred to the lack of facilities for students, especially considering the fact that the eagerness to study in Arabic schools is constantly rising on a yearly basis.
"The Arabic schools are almost 50 years old but increasing the number of school buildings in Brunei-Muara has never been addressed let alone other schools in the other districts," said His Majesty.
Since its establishment, said His Majesty, there has been no word on the development of new establishments that are as "prestigious" or as "grand" as the current Arabic schools.
The schools' age, added His Majesty, can be considered as a pride due to their success in remaining relevant but this, he underscored "does not necessarily reflect quality".
Asking whether authorities are waiting for "the point where we are forced to raise tents and conduct classes in them", His Majesty highlighted that the lack of infrastructure has compelled the schools to turn down deserving students who have proven themselves intellectually capable of meeting the educational standards through the assessment of initiation exams prior to being enrolled.
As His Majesty also expressed his disappointment with the fact that religious education has never been made mandatory, the monarch made his displeasure known on denying qualified students educational privilege justified by additional terms and conditions in spite of their satisfactory entrance results.
With this, His Majesty was heard directing the authorities to review the number of applicants who were accepted based on the exams within the 10 years of the schools' establishment and ascertain whether candidates in that era, where it was still possible to accept all applications, were bound by such terms and conditions that the institutions currently have in place.
"What we know is how to control the number of entrants" which have been limited to only 200 pupils a year, or less "as if the number of Bruneian residents is not increasing and religious awareness is at a standstill".
Despite the nation's other Arabic higher institution situated in Tutong, Ma'had Islam Brunei, said His Majesty, has been a source of anxiety for parents who wish to send their children to the secondary school after having graduated from their primary years.
Basing their worries on "reasonable" grounds, His Majesty explained that parents are sometimes reluctant to approve of their children to reside in the school's boarding facilities and would have to commute between Bandar Seri Begawan and Tutong or else opt to relocate their children to mainstream schools.
"If this were to happen," said His Majesty, "there is a worry it will become a trend that will result in the decline of Arab and religious stream students in the country."
Pointing that transferring students should not be an issue, His Majesty validated his argument that the lack of classrooms can affect "substantial interests" such as reducing the number of students and subjecting them to less suitable conditions.
The number of students in a classroom was also the subject of His Majesty's concern as the monarch noted the average of 20 over students studying in the same room at the same time and asked whether the number per class is in accordance with proper standards.
"Is it possible for one teacher to focus on that many students? If not then it would mean that this is happening just to overcome the issue of space" including having to transform boarding rooms at the male Arabic secondary school into classes.
Despite the schools' dilemma "people still do not see for the need of a new building", said His Majesty and voiced his curiosity on the plight of the schools' library and the playing field that has since deteriorated due to the lack of maintenance.
"This is just about the Arabic Secondary School for boys and not including the one for girls," highlighted His Majesty.
"Where are the principals?" His Majesty asked. "Have these inadequacies been expressed or reported to the ministry?" and not exempting those from the ministry who were once in charge of the schools.
"I know that this is a very old issue but why has it not been resolved? Until when?" asked His Majesty.
"In simplicity, society's problems have foundations and they need to be addressed. There has to be initiative. I know that no one has a magic lamp such as Aladdin to immediately materialise buildings but this does not mean that we cannot come up with immediate steps such as identifying temporary buildings that can be utilised whilst waiting for the construction of permanent buildings.
"In my opinion, there is no need for children enrolled here to leave or transferred to other schools.
"Arabic schools," His Majesty continued, "can become schools that are superior because of their system" not practised by other schools that identifies students who are exclusive.
"Arabic schools are also a factory on their own that produces human resource that is knowledgeable on the hereafter that is needed by the country and therefore, Arabic schools cannot be weak, cannot be left behind and should not be marginalised."
- Borneo Bulletin
(10th February 2012)