Tahfiz school fire that killed 23 reflects Malaysia’s complacent attitude
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Tahfiz school fire that killed 23 reflects Malaysia’s complacent attitude

THEY had a whole lifetime ahead of them, but a tragic blaze that broke out at an Islamic boarding school in Kuala Lumpur at an ungodly hour on Thursday, cut short the lives of 21 teenagers and two others in what will become a subject of heated debate in the ensuing weeks.

In the aftermath of the inferno, the Fire and Rescue department said the fire was likely sparked by a short circuit in the poorly-built building or mosquito repellant coil, while government ministers were quick to point out the school, Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, was not operating with proper approvals.

And while everyone is sent scrambling for answers, the incident underscores a symptom of a bigger problem: there is a great deal of complacency plaguing the country where fire safety, and safety in general, is concerned.

According to Reuters, the department said the fire broke out at around 5.40 am in a top-floor dormitory in the three-story building, where most of the students – boys aged between 13 and 17, were sleeping in bunk beds, with many of the windows covered by metal grilles.

Police said two teachers were also killed in the fire at the school, a 15-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Petronas Twin Towers. Most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.

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A fire department official said the overly-crammed dormitory had only one entrance. Many of the victims were left trapped and their charred remains were found piled on top of each other.

“The building was surrounded by metal grills that could not be opened from the inside. The students, after realising the fire and heavy smoke, tried to escape through the window,” the official said.

“But because of the grilles, they could not escape.”

“The pupils all got locked in and they couldn’t escape and got burnt,” Nadia Azalan, sister of a 13-year-old victim, told Reuters in tears as distraught family members gathered outside the building. “Safety should come first.”

Like many others, the Tahfiz opened its doors without complying with regulations, operating for a full year without approval from local authorities. In between that time, no new checks were carried out as the request to operate was still being processed.

In recent months, the Tahfiz schools, where pupils are taught to memorise the Quran, have come under scrutiny owing to numerous incidences. The ill-fated Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah is among hundreds if not thousands of such schools unregulated by the Education Ministry. Instead, they come under the questionable purview of the religious department.

Noncompliance. Operating without licences. Weak enforcement. Like a broken record on loop, this tune has been heard so many times, it’s nothing short of nauseating.

Just in August, the fire department said it recorded 211 fires involving Tahfiz schools since 2015.

Earlier that month, 16 people including eight students fled an early morning fire at the family-run Tahfiz Al-Taqwa school in Baling, Kedah, The Star reported

In May, another Tahfiz school on the outskirts of the capital was engulfed in an early morning fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

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However, the incident on Thursday raised the spectre of the 1989 tragedy where 27 female students of SAR Taufikiah Al-Halimiah, also in Kedah, died as their hostel burned to the ground.

Despite the latest deaths, Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Noh Omar, says action might not be taken against the school as “they have suffered enough”. If that is the case, where heads will not roll and with no one held to account, we can forget about preventing future disasters.

At the time of this writing, and more than 12 hours after the incident, the school’s principal and owners have yet to be roped in for questioning. Does this mean they are immune to action? Who knows?

But what is clear, though, is that they failed to protect the lives of the teenagers and wardens entrusted to them, all in the name of cutting corners and saving a few bucks.

Malaysia is a land of laws but selective enforcement, and apathetic attitudes. And if anything, Thursday’s fire highlights the authorities’ failure to ensure full compliance of what mattered most.

Regardless, the run-of-the-mill finger-pointing and bickering between politicians have yet to commence, while the lackadaisical attitudes of authorities and society, in general, are expected to persist, perhaps even until judgment day.

However way we look at it, the 23 deaths on Thursday is just another tell-tale sign of the level of vigilance and alacrity that leaves much to be desired.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent