In the last couple of weeks, we witnessed dramatic events that left me wondering if we have forgotten to be more conscious of the society we live in.
On Sept 14 2017, 23 innocent individuals lost their lives in a fire at a religious school in Kuala Lumpur. 21 of the 23 victims were children. As we endeavour to make sense of the unfairness and senselessness of this tragedy, we ask only ask what plan could this have been a part of, what possible meaning or lesson that can be gleaned from this?
The alleged perpertrators aged between 18 and 12, were children as well and not much older than almost all their victims. They too had their whole lives ahead of them but they decided to throw it all away due to petty vengeance and misguided bravado.
It was also made known by the police that the perpetrators also tested positive for drugs and were school dropouts. Imagine, a 12-year-old testing positive for drugs. I find this shocking and unfathomable.
The story underlies a problem we often tend to ignore. As society changes due to rapid urbanisation and economic growth, there are some of us who cannot keep up with this change and fall through the cracks. Many of them are children and are easily swayed to pick a path that is destructive and coupled with inducements such as alcohol and drugs they then descend into a morass of crime, social exclusion and addiction.
This is a problem the world over and it is a phenomenon in developed countries but with Malaysia rapidly progressing and urbanising, it has become an inconvenient truth of our growth story.
Many of these children eschew the traditional dictum and embrace rebellion as a way of expressing themselves. Some yearn to be expelled from school and this presents their families, some of them already distressed from financial pressures, with great challenges and they simply give up.
Hence, as a society, is there anything we can do?
I recall growing up; I studied in a government school and the best part about studying in a government school besides the very affordable school fees is that one interacts with individuals from different backgrounds. It is like a melange and while I recall students with discipline problems, I clearly do not recall discipline problems as complex and pressing as it is now.
I also remember there was a government campaign at that time called “masyarakat penyayang” or “caring society.”
I believe the answer to many of these ills is to nurture a caring society. A society that is not consumed by material wealth or consumerism but a society that works together and addresses problems in a collective manner.
We must start with ourselves as Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” We have to be caring and compassionate not just to our family members but also to our neighbours and friends. We must not exclude those who face problems or challenges but do our best to help out in any way we can whether financially or simply just providing moral support.
I believe the family unit is fundamentally important and it is important that efforts are made to ensure it remains strong and intact. For example, family meals are very important. It is important for families to sit down together a few times a week to have a meal together and also talk about their work, life and other pertinent matters.
It is also important for parents to inculcate the right values and teach their children the importance of family. Discipline is also fundamental and in the case of the Tahfiz fire, children as young as 12 should not be out on the streets in the wee hours of the morning.
Education is also a key component in ensuring we engender a caring society. Teachers also play an important part and must be proactive especially when dealing with students who are socially incompetent.
Community associations like residents’ associations and rukun tetangga can also run programs to promote a caring society. They can also educate their members on the attributes of a caring society and what can be done to ensure we do better as a society.
The government, especially via the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, can organise more awareness campaigns and programs and activities to promote the concept of a caring society.
As we chart the path towards 2050, the challenges we faced in the past are completely dissimilar to the challenges we will face tomorrow. In the past we were concerned with economic growth and narrowing the “haves” and the “have nots” but as we embark on the next stage of the Malaysian growth story our challenges are ensuring we remain a united, progressive and caring society and do not lose the all important concept of togetherness which has kept us going for so long.
We must also ensure that our youths who are distressed or on the wrong path in life are given the nourishment and encouragement that will guide them back to the right path. All of us have a role to play be it parents, teachers, religious and community leaders, politicians or government servants, journalists or opinion shapers; together we have to make this work so we do not lose our sense of community at the expense of development.
As for the five young alleged perpetrators of the Tahfiz fire, it is too late for them now, as they have to face the full wrath of the law due to their diabolical actions. However it is not too late to prevent such tragedies from occurring by ensuring our young do not go astray.