By Debra Chong
The Malaysian Insider
Dec 17, 2011
KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 17 — For Catholic Malaysians, Putrajaya’s latest pick of a Malay-Muslim principal to head the prestigious SMK Convent Bukit Nanas (CBN) underscores a worrying trend to disregard the Church’s contribution and rights in the country.
Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam waded this week into a growing row between the 112-year-old school’s Catholic owners and the Ministry of Education (MOE) after its new principal Datin Seri Zavirah Mohd Shaari’s surprise arrival at its doorstep.
“The appointment of the principal of CBN is not only contrary to the government policy of maximum consultation but has given the impression that it is the government’s strategy to take over the mission schools in total disregard for the status, ethos and special character of mission schools, especially CBN,” Pakiam said in a statement published earlier this week in Catholic paper The Herald.
He was appealing to Education director-general Datuk Seri Abdul Ghafar Mahmud to reconsider the ministry’s decision and pick a suitably qualified person nominated by the school owners under the Infant Jesus (IJ) Sisters order. The school is considered among the top convent schools in the country.
The case comes on the heels of a recent drama over the police’s extra conditions for carolling permits on two South Klang churches less than two weeks ago.
Earlier this year, right-wing Malay-Muslim groups triggered a national uproar over persistent rumours that churches are on a campaign to convert their own and pushing unfounded allegations of a secret political plot to install a Christian prime minister in the next general election.
Christians say such issues are an attempt to erode their religious rights in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
CBN, which has produced notable personalities such as Bersih 2.0 chief Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan and former International Trade Minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, is one of 60 convent schools in Malaysia, Sister Rosalind Tan told The Malaysian Insider.
Tan is the mother provincial of the IJ Sisters and the person in charge of the order’s administration in the country.
She related that the school’s board of governors were taken aback when Zavirah reported for duty last week.
The previous head, Ann Khoo, retired last month because there was no prior notice from the Education Ministry.
Tan said this was not the first time the ministry had acted without consultation, saying the issue had been going on for decades.
She said the order, as the school’s rightful owners, had a responsibility to ensure the school head abided by its founding ethos even though the operations were now managed by the federal government.
“We have no qualms about race or religion of the principal posted to our mission schools,” she said in an interview this week.
She said that Zavirah was not school’s first lay principal, or the order’s first non-Christian school head; but expressed disappointment that its nominees had been sidelined by the ministry.
“What we want are principals who know what the mission school is and stands for,” she stressed.
In his statement, Pakiam highlighted that Zavirah had not been on a list submitted by the mission school authority.
He said the decision breached a previous government policy in the 1970s for “maximum consultation” with Christian mission schools nationwide in a revised report by the Royal Commission on the Teaching Services, West Malaysia.
The metropolitan archbishop added that former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was the education minister in 1976, had repeated and affirmed the pledge in 1998 in a trip to Kota Kinabalu, to consult mission school authorities over the choice of school heads and teachers.
The Malaysian Insider understands there are over 400 Christian mission schools nationwide.
Catholics, who make up nearly one million of the country’s 28 million total population, have founded more than 250 such schools, including Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s alma mater, St John’s Institution, which neighbours CBN.