At what cost safe schools?

UNLIKE the 60th Merdeka celebration that was buoyed by the golden success of the SEA Games, Malaysia Day saw a starkly different scenario.

The nation was still in mourning following the demise of a beloved former Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Adding on to that was an even more heart-breaking tragedy of a fire that claimed the lives of 21 schoolchildren and two teachers just days before Malaysia Day.

Reportedly there have been more than 200 such tragedies since 2015. And after each tragedy, there has been no shortage of words of sympathy and promises. But why the apathy in nailing down the issue?

This time we again read more of the same. Wonder if it is another "hot air" balloon meant to distract us from the real problem, namely, a blatant lack of interest.

I come to this conclusion by observing the many "contradictions" that are increasingly apparent of late. Take the peace centre initiative announced recently for example. In less than a year, everything seems to be settled as a matter of urgency and priority. Putrajaya offered a location and expertise with a large amount of money assured for its establishment.

Various parties, near and far, were consulted. The speed at which decisions were made is unprecedented giving the impression that everything is well planned and under control. In other words, Malaysia has the capacity to make it happen if she wants to.

How does this measure up against the long-standing issue of vulnerable schools? The contrast is appalling given the frequency and number of lives lost (which is more than that inflicted by "terrorists" locally) over the last three years. Nothing seems to be "settled" as evident from the latest incident at Datuk Keramat, adding more lost lives to the cumulative total.

The recommendations made years ago after a similar fire in a Kedah school was ignored and not reinforced.

One can, therefore, sense that all is not well – be it in terms of planning or control. In short, the lack of interest and urgency is becoming an obvious factor.

Funds should not be an excuse because the cost involved is nowhere near that of the peace centre project. Never mind the other massive infrastructure boom; some designed as the world's best!

Hence, citing lack of interest as a reason has merit especially when the effort does not command as much publicity as the often-mentioned FDI-sponsored projects.

While in Sarawak a day later, this became even clearer on reading the front page news of a local daily. It highlighted cases of "dilapidated schools" which remain unresolved until today. According to the deputy prime minister, 1,020 out of 1,454 Sarawak schools are "in dilapidated condition".

More than a third (415) have 75% of their structures needing repairs after being in existence over 50 years. Only slightly more have a functioning level of 75%, while the remaining are somewhere in between, mostly located in the marginalised areas of Sarawak.

The DPM has pledged to act "soonest", noting in a press conference that only 29.8% are "conducive for learning". Meanwhile, at another event, Sarawak Welfare, Community Wellbeing, Women, Family and Childhood Development Minister Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah identified "11 dilapidated kindergartens" (from among 109 dilapidated Tabika Kemas) in Sarawak that need to be "replaced".

"The problem has been existing for a long time and we cannot wait for federal funds anymore," she said.

It was confirmed later that the state will advance RM1 billion to kick-start the upgrading of the affected schools. The federal government will later reimburse the state government.

This almost confirmed the apparent lack of interest and priority on the part of the federal authority tasked with ensuring that learning facilities are at their best to deliver quality education (not just safe).

Herein lies another stark contradiction vis-a-vis the billions invested to build highways across Borneo and the lack of smaller funds for "dilapidated" schools. Yet the government often makes the clarion call for schools to be realigned to lofty targets geared towards the 21st century learning, or more recently even the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution.

Have they lost touch with the situation on the ground?

It is baffling that we are made to believe significant (transformational) change cannot happen in our schools as a matter of course. In truth, many schools have changed (think trust schools). It can be done as long as there is seriousness in its implementation.

As much as we are committed to delivering a worldclass public transport system criss-crossing the nation, we cannot but ask why not the same, if not more so, for the public education system. Why the lukewarm and half-hearted display of action to enforce what is urgently needed to make our schools secure, safe and conducive for studies.

After all, education is no less a worthy investment with great promises on return of investment. Figuratively speaking, every school is a potential "787 Dreamliner" that will enable the students to fly beyond the horizons of their wildest dreams.

But just like in the aircraft, this will not take off unless the overdue issues of safety and security are thoroughly dealt with utmost interest, rigour and urgency to meet stringent standards. Otherwise, it is not airworthy as lives will continue to be threatened and sacrificed. In short, no Dreamliner-like schools will be properly built.

As such, my ardent Malaysia Day wish is to invest the required funds to turn our schools into "Dreamliners". The aeroplanes can wait.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com