LAST_UPDATEMon, 23 Jul 2018 8pm

Tahfiz School Fire Suspects: How Should We Fit These Troubled Youths Back Into Society?

The entire country was shocked by the tragedy of the tahfiz school fire in Dato’ Keramat that killed 23 innocent lives which includes 21 children and 2 adults.

When the writer of this article first heard the news, it took her a while to process all that has happened. Gone too soon, we continue to mourn the lost and pray the victims are in a happier place now.

New evidence surfacing days after the incident that it was not an accident but a deliberate arson attempt added to the victims’ families despair and an expression of outrage from Malaysians.

Some demanded for the arsonists, many of them just children themselves, to be tried as adults while others shifted the blame to their parents.

City police chief Datuk Amar Singh said investigations revealed that the suspects, aged between 11 and 18, had intended to burn down the Darul Quran Ittifaqiah tahfiz school in an act of revenge over a name calling incident that happened a few days prior.

"Investigations revealed that the suspects had used two cooking gas cylinders and a hydrocarbon accelerant to commit the offence.

"Of the seven, six tested positive for ganja abuse. We believe that they were high when they started the fire.

"They took the cylinders to the top floor of the school building and started the fire," he told reporters during a press conference at the city police headquarters.

It soon became clear that this entire tragedy was the result of the all too familiar tale of troubled teenagers who get entangled in the deadly web of drug abuse, addiction, dropping out of school and getting into trouble with the law.

If being high on drugs at such a young age could lead to such vengeful actions, we can’t begin to imagine what they might have done if they were adults.

With these seven suspects’ future at stake, Malaysian Digest reached out to relevant stakeholders on how we can strive to take constructive view, be empathetic to the situation and fit these troubled youths back into society instead of condemning them for the rest of their lives.

"Some Youths Do Not Know How To Become The Best, So They Choose To Become The Worst"

Hafizi, the counselor of the Pengasih rehabilitation center in the heart of Kuala Lumpur shared his experience and perspectives from having worked with youths in a similar situation.

“They ought to be tried as the juveniles that they are. I acknowledge that they did something vindictively, however, it is our duty to help these youths to realise their faults and ensure that others learn from them.

“They will be guilt ridden for the rest of their lives,” he added.

These days, the term youth and drugs are two uncommon subjects that can easily go hand in hand. There are numerous reasons why youth consumes drugs and unfortunately, there are many instances in which the root of drug use goes much deeper than experimentation.

“Some teenagers start using drugs in order to fit in, feel and look cool, and to be able to join an older, more attractive social circle.

“Second reason is their need to feel good as drugs gives off a feeling of thrill and intensified emotion that cannot be obtained through simple pleasures like food and exercise,” he said, adding how drugs interact with the way our brain produces and the way our body experiences pleasure. When drugs are used, the brain produces up to 10 times the normal amount of dopamine and euphoria a person should experience.

That ought to explain how these seven suspects were seemingly energetic in carrying out the brazen act that night.

Their lack of attention from their loved ones also plays a role, relayed Pengasih’s counselor.

“They often experience a lack of purpose or talent and a rather unfulfilled feeling to make them feel not special. Some youths do not know how to become the best, so they choose to become the worst in hopes of getting attention or being acknowledged.

“The environment also plays a role in contributing to drug taking,” he added.

Prevention is better than cure, so as to how we can prevent youths to consume these dangerous substances, Hafizi said that education and support are vital in curbing the issue.

“Adults should be educated on identifying the signs of troubled youths with a predisposition to drug taking. Adults should also be educated on how to approach the problem with warmth, care, and sensitivity.

“Schools should be more sensitive to the needs of these troubled youths by conducting more programs like after school drug awareness co-curricular activities, conduct more programs with drug prevention messages. There should also be mobile technology that is tied to schools so applications, emails, or WhatsApp groups can reach these kids."

“Delinquent And Deviant, But Still Kids”

Not forgetting, the government too plays an important role in shaping a better society and they can do by not allowing delinquents to be expelled from school with nothing to do, said Hafizi.

In spite of the best efforts of teachers and parents to direct our youth along drug-free paths, every story will include some patterns discovered in the approach to addiction witnessed in young adults.

As teenagers grow, their patterns of substance abuse follow them. Their social surroundings might permit an individual to increase substance abuse without his or her parents knowing.

“Without basic education, there is not much of a future for the youngsters. This will only increase the likelihood of negative behaviour,” he sternly added.

Regardless of our own personal feelings about the tragedy, we must remind ourselves that at this juncture the seven teenagers are still just suspects. They are not even charged for any offence yet at the time of writing. We must remember that most of them are still children in the eyes of the law.

“The kids are not solely responsible for this tragedy and it is important for us to remember that it's easier for us to blame these kids and drugs for what has happened. However, this tragedy was going to happen one way or another.

“We shouldn't take the easy way out in blaming them without thoroughly understanding the circumstances surrounding the case and the events prior.

“Yes, they are still children; delinquent and deviant but still kids. We must not forget that. Their welfare and psychological well being must also be looked into. Social services should be present for both the kids and their families,” he advised.

Fitting these troubled youths back into society can be difficult to some but Hafizi is optimistic and still sees a bright future for all.

“They should be given the necessary support and counselling as with a good rehabilitation (or social norms, education etc), these kids can help others to not make the same mistakes they have done.

“They can motivate others and show how there is hope and that change is possible. By giving back to society, they can make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. By doing so, the constant reminder of what they have done, will make them into meaningful members of society,” said Hafizi.

Like everyone else, they must be treated humanely.

“They should also be tried by the courts and not the media. The public and media should remain as neutral and objective as possible. It seems that these kids were judged even before they were picked up by the cops.

“They should also be given proper counselling and psychological attention to assess their mental health,” he relayed, adding how it is also important to ensure that they should not be coerced or threatened in any way.

“A Person Is Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty”

In the atmosphere of heightened sorrow and grieving in the aftermath of the tragedy, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has stated that the culprit(s) will feel the full brunt of the law.

With public sentiments running high leading to calls for capital punishment and exacting revenge, it is easy to let our emotions rule in this heartbreaking incident but what punishment does the law permit in Malaysia?

There have also been renewed calls for increasing fire safety in private homes by putting the Fire Safety Act 1988 under scrutiny, increasing monitoring of tahfiz schools by bringing them under the purview of the Education Ministry and even discussions about effectiveness of anti-drug campaigns carried out in schools.

But exactly who and how can those guilty be held accountable? The police have stated that the case will be investigated under Section 435 of the Penal Code for mischief by fire and Section 302 for murder.

Malaysian Digest also spoke to Yusfarizal Yussoff, a legal practitioner with 15 years of experience in civil litigation specialising in tort, contract and commercial dispute as well as public interest litigation, shared the legal implications of this case.

Putting matters into perspective, Yusfarizal explained how he nor public’s opinion does not matter in this case as ultimately, the Public Prosecutor has absolute discretion to charge these seven suspects without fear or favour.

“The Public Prosecutor can take into account society feeling and sentiment but he is certainly not bound by it as his primary concern is about upholding justice based on evidence and rules of law,” he said.

Looking at the known and available facts from police investigation, Yusfarizal views the perpetrators can be charged under Section 302 for murder, or Section 304 for culpable homicide not amounting to murder or Section 436 for mischief by fire with intent to destroy a house.

Murder carries mandatory death penalty, while culpable homicide and mischief by fire carry imprisonment for a term that may extend to 30 years.

To prove murder under Section 302, the prosecutor need to prove existence of mens rea and actus reus. Simply put, the accused persons must be proven to do the act of killing with intention to kill. In proving intention, due regards must be given to relevant factors such as pre-meditated plan, weapon used and also motive.

With regards to minor offender, the Court for Children was established under the provisions of the Child Act 2001 (Act 611) to hear, determine and dispose any charge against a child (18 years old and below). However, Section 11(5) of Act 611 excludes jurisdiction of the Court for Children for offences punishable with death.

Hence, if the perpetrators is charged under Section 302 of the Penal Code which carries death penalty, they will be charged in the High Court and not the Court for Children.

"If the seven youths were convicted for murder, the death penalty would only be executed against the one who has attained the age of 18. The children aged between 15 to 17 will be detained in a prison at the discretion of the YDPA, and the other child aged 11 may only be sent to approved schools for juveniles such as Sekolah Tunas Bakti under the purview of the Welfare Department,” he thoroughly explained.

As Malaysia currently holds the title of having the strictest punishment for drug abuse in the world, Yusfarizal opined how the law to curb the issue of drug abuse by minors is adequate at this moment.

“Moreover, the introduction of the Child Act as a comprehensive code for protection of children adds to the long list of parliamentary legislation relevant to the issue. The real problem is not the law, but the enforcement,” he said.

Whatever happened to the legal maxim of “a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” as it seems the public perception has taken a front seat in passing judgement against the suspects.

“The suspects must remain a suspect, until properly charged in Court, and the accused person must remain an accused person until convicted.

“We should be reminded of Section 15 of Act 611 which restrict mass media from revealing name, address, particulars and pictures of a child subjected to investigation, trial or conviction of a criminal offence.

“This is not only to protect the child’s safety, but also to prevent life-long public reprimand against the child which normally continues even after he/she served his/her sentence. A person who commit offence under Section 15 can be sent to prison for a term not exceeding 5 years,” he added.

Besides The 7 Boys, Who Else Should Be Accountable?

As to whether the parents of the youths should be charged with child neglect, Yusfarizal explained that if the facts and evidences pointing towards child neglect, he believes that the Public Prosecutor will consider it.

“We have the provision of child neglect since 2001, and the punishment had been increased in 2016, but no charge was ever made.

“In this regards, we have to understand and differentiate between negligence by parents which caused direct harm or death to their own children, and negligence by parents which caused their children to inflict harm to others.

“In the former situation, we can understand the rationale of the Public Prosecutor not preferring charges against parents as it is most unlikely that a parent would deliberately want to neglect his children to death.

“The example of such case is the infamous incident of a mother forgetfully left her sleeping toddler at the backseat of her car subsequently leading to death. It is beyond imagination that the mother would have the slightest intention to purposely neglect her child in such situation,” he explained.

In the present case, a child is left without proper supervision at odd hours, enabling the child to engage with criminal activities and harm others.

“In this situation, the Public Prosecutor may want to consider invoking the provision on parental neglect under the Child Act to send a strong signal to our community.

“Gone are the days that parents could give a lame excuse for their children act of delinquencies by just saying “we are too busy to earn a living for the children’s future”, he further opined.

On a slightly different note, Yusfarizal also shares with us on the different kind of schooling system tahfiz offers. As he too sends his children to an alternative schooling system using tahfiz as joint curricular besides KBSR, he found that tahfiz education to be a good system to build character, instill good deeds and promotes accurate religious understanding.

“After having done research on tahfiz education, I am of the view that tahfiz schools in Malaysia can be generally categorized into 2 areas.

“Firstly, as purely tahfiz school/madrasah/pondok set-up offering only tahfiz education without academic curricular. Secondly, as private schools offering tahfiz education alongside with KBSR and/or cambridge curricular.

“In most circumstances, the 2nd category of schools provides more adequate facilities, in compliance with relevant requirement by authority, while the 1st category are normally home-based and unregistered.

“The issue of safety and security will be aggravated if such schools cannot be monitored by authorities due to non-registration. Hence, it is high time for an integrated registration system be in place,” he concluded.

-Malaysian Digest