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Feeling of gloom and doom after the Keramat tahfiz fire

Police say they have solved the fatal tahfiz school fire case following the arrests of seven teenagers connected with the deaths of 23 people including learners as young as six years old at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz centre on September 16, 2017. The suspects had allegedly set fire to the tahfiz centre in Jalan Keramat Hujung, Kuala Lumpur after a name-calling incident between them and some pupils of the school. Apparently they had used two cooking gas cylinders and an accelerator to set the three-storey building on fire early Thursday morning.

Police are investigating the case as murder and causing mischief by fire. Police had picked up the suspects between 6.30pm Friday and 2.30am Saturday at different locations in Datuk Keramat, thanks to leads from CCTV recordings and initial forensic evidence that suggested foul play.

It is tempting to believe that the case has been cleared up, but in reality many factors promise to complicate the issue. The Keramat tahfiz tragedy is the latest in a series of fires that had hit religious institutions in the past two years, according to fire department statistics, quoted by ALJAZEERA. Of  the 1,083 fires that were recorded during this period, 211 were burned to the ground. The worst incident took place in 1989 when 27 female students at a religious school in Kedah died after fire destroyed the school and eight wooden hostels.

Predictably, the most recent incident has renewed calls for better regulation of religious schools which are mostly privately run. They come under the purview of state religious authorities and not the education ministry. Apparently there are more than 500 registered tahfiz schools in Malaysia but many more could be operating without licences.

The question is, have things improved over the last two years? As it often happens in Malaysia, there would be angry hue and cry for action when disasters strike but it would be business as usual after a week or two. If remedial efforts had been initiated to tackle the tahfiz school situation then people don't know about it.

It is disturbing to learn that the suspects -- all school dropouts between the ages of 11 and 18 -- showed no remorse, according to a New Straits Times report. Six of the seven suspects had tested positive for drugs. Two of them had been detained before, one on charges of vehicle theft, another for rioting. They were said to be on drugs when they started the fire. Reportedly, they are children of immigrants living in the Datuk Keramat area. Notwithstanding their crime, these suspects are as much victims as the tahfiz pupils who had perished in the fire. They need help to recover from the mess that they are in now.

One of the most frequently asked questions about them was, where were their parents when they embarked on their dastardly deed? Why were they allowed to roam the streets during the hours when most normal kids would be sleeping? But are we prepared to assist them? Do we even care about their well-being? Quiet introspection can be extremely valuable at this stage.

Did anyone ever imagine that Malaysian kids would resort to arson to exact revenge for a perceived wrongdoing? And why is this alarming aggressive behaviour surfacing now? Boys and girls today also have a hard time showing respect for authority, responding to simple instructions and completing tasks, among other things. They seem to be falling further and further behind.

We cannot say we have resolved the Keramat fire disaster until we address all the issues that had led to the blaze. A calamity of this magnitude should be one of those defining moments in Malaysia's  progress but do we have what it takes to bring both quality and commitment to the cause of keeping our children safe?






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