Malaysia’s love of sugarcane called into question
  • Jennifer Park
  • BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Image caption, Advocates for the family are campaigning for the parents’ release.

Just over a week ago, a Malaysian couple was jailed by a Swedish court for hitting and whipping their child. The case, which began with the couple’s arrest in December, has left some Malaysians questioning whether they are relying too heavily on corporal punishment.

“This is what one of the children called a rotang,” prosecutor Anna Arnel said as she pulled out a cane in the Stockholm courtroom. “In Malaysia, it is a whip used to discipline children at school and at home.”

Her remarks prompted “expressions of confusion and shock” in court, according to Malaysian newspaper The Star.

The couple’s youngest child, 7-year-old Arif, who sat in the dock, had previously appeared on videotaped testimony saying his father pinched his arm and his mother hit him with a coat hanger and “a stick with a knot at the end.”

This was rotan, or rattan.

Malaysians will not be shocked by these statements.

Indeed, Malaysia’s Tourism and Culture Minister Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz used almost the same words as the prosecutors in January when he called on Swedish authorities to show leniency.

“In Malaysia, it is normal to scold and whip children from time to time,” he said.

Each country has its own culture and its own way of raising children, he added.

These contrasting attitudes were made clear when Amar, the second of the couple’s four children, estimated that he was beaten more than 1,000 times a year for reasons including playing loud music instead of doing his homework, fighting with his sister and misbehaving while reading the Quran with his mother.

When he continued to say that he “deserved to be spanked,” the female police officer interrogating him interjected that corporal punishment has been illegal in Sweden since 1979. In other words, no child in Sweden deserves to be spanked.

Image caption, The children were returned to Malaysia after reports emerged that their non-Muslim guardians had been feeding them non-halal food.

Malaysians have generally tended to sympathize with the parents – Azizul Rahim Awaluddin, director of the Malaysian Tourism Board in Stockholm, and his wife Sharlwati Norshal, who pleaded not guilty but were sentenced to 10 and 14 months in prison respectively – but there have been voices of dissent.

The debate has been further intensified by two recent cases in which teachers have been accused of administering harsh punishments.

In February, a teacher in the northern Malaysian state of Perak beat four teenage girls, leaving them bloodied, for allegedly spilling water and forgetting their textbooks. The teacher had reportedly been allowed to keep his job despite previous instances of similar violence.

A few weeks earlier in the same state, a different teacher had made two elementary school students wear bells around their necks like cows and threatened to whip them if they didn’t eat grass as punishment for not completing their homework.

The education ministry described the punishment as “extreme” and “excessive”, but in the end the teacher was only given a warning and transferred to another school.

An editorial in the New Straits Times commented on the second incident:Treat children as equals“The response from the public and government authorities should reflect where children fit into the larger context of Malaysian society,” he said.

“No one is suggesting that the teacher should be charged with child abuse, fired or at least suspended,” the paper continued.

But parents waiting for their children outside a secondary school in Kuala Lumpur expressed little outrage at the attack, with many saying they had experienced similar treatment growing up.

His father, Abdul Rahman, remembers his son forgetting his shorts for gym class and being forced by the teacher to run around the playground in his underwear.

“It was a good lesson,” he said with a laugh.

Image caption, In Malaysian schools, students are allowed to hold a stick in their hand or place it on their bottom while still clothed.

James Nayagam of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission said parents tend to support caning in schools because they want their children to do well academically. Corporal punishment is ingrained in society, he said. And parents outside schools in Kuala Lumpur confirmed this again, with the majority admitting to disciplining their children by hitting them or pinching their arms.

One man said his parents shoved raw chillies in his mouth as a child for lying, while his mother, Carol So, said her father tied him to a tree to stop him escaping when he whipped him.

But Mr Soh added that unlike his parents, he would talk to his children first if they were misbehaving and only use caning as a last resort, so attitudes may be slowly changing.

Meanwhile, in the case of Sweden, some articles have suggested that Sweden’s ban on corporal punishment has created a nation of “naughty kids.”

Children need to respect elders and authority, she argued, and while she voiced her support for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, she noted that many parents believe that “a few lashes with the cane” are the most effective way to curb bad behaviour.

Reports that Azizul and Sharwati had slapped at least one of their four children for not praying have resonated in some parts of Malaysia’s Muslim-majority community.

“If our children don’t pray, we have to beat them,” said Siti Hajja, a mother of two.

At the same time, many Malaysian parents recognise that strong laws to protect children are, in principle, a good thing.

Malay Mail Online Newspaper Criticizing other media “The story of Malaysian parents being victimised has been distorted by Scandinavian countries who place too much emphasis on protecting children’s rights,” he said, arguing that the government should focus more on “achieving justice for helpless children”.

Some in Malaysia, such as Sharmila Sekaran of children’s rights group Voice of Children, are calling for an end to all corporal punishment.

She argues that corporal punishment often gets out of hand and has long-term psychological effects.

She says she has met Malaysians who are struggling to care for their elderly parents because they still harbor resentment over punishments they received as children.

“There are other ways too. It’s easy to be violent with children because they’re small and can’t fight back,” she said.

But she acknowledges that her views are not shared by most Malaysians.

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