Nestled in this sleepy hillside town of Kampar in the Malaysian state of Perak is an Islamic homeschool like no other.
Islamic homeschools are known locally as pondok schools. The word "pondok" is Malay for hut, and religious teachers conduct lessons in small huts.
But the Darul Huffaz Academy, which means House of Quran Readers in Arabic, operates out of five shop spaces. It provides month- long camps for 400 Muslim children from the ages of nine to 19 during the school holidays.
It is one of the few modern Islamic schools around, with computer classes and laundry services. Prospective campers are screened for their Quranic proficiency before admission.
"I want to raise a progressive, Muslim community that is relevant to society," said principal Ahmad Mahfuz. "They will not only be the best in reading and understanding the Quran, but also be the most competent engineers, lawyers and doctors."
Modern or old-fashioned, thousands of pondok schools are scattered across Malaysia. They operate outside the purview of the education ministry, get no government funding and run on donations.
That may soon change. The government recently launched a programme called 1Malaysia Pondok Development Foundation, which aims to register all pondok schools in the country under an umbrella.
The foundation will be run by non-governmental organisations and advised by a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department, with Prime Minister Najib Razak himself as the patron.
Mashitah Ibrahim, deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department, said the foundation will collect information on the schools' activities and give financial assistance to excellent rural students to further their studies.
But teachers like Mahfuz are sceptical. The schools are widely perceived to be aligned with the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, and they worry that the government is trying to rein in the opposition's influence.
Mahfuz insists that the pondok schools, in principle, are not politically partisan, though religious teachers are influential community figures.
"What the religious teachers are outspoken about are issues like corruption, which the religion is against," Mahfuz said. "We don't have time to spread political teachings, as we are preoccupied with the Quran."
Pondok schools were the earliest form of schools in Malaysia, existing even before British rule. Their main function was to provide religious education to Muslim children. While some have evolved to follow the national school curriculum alongside Islamic education, many pondok schools in the villages still adopt a teaching method inherited centuries ago.
Muslim parents like to send their children to pondok schools for a few hours after the regular school day. Students pay no fees, but help with chores such as cooking and cleaning.
If the federal government indeed wants to keep closer tabs on pondok schools, they may not find it easy. Islamic matters are after all under the jurisdiction of the state, not federal, government.
"The foundation will help streamline some management issues in religious education, but the federal government cannot impose what pondok schools can teach or cannot teach," said Professor Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid, deputy vice- chancellor of INTI International University.
Siti Suriani Sulaiman, a mother of four, sends two of her daughters, aged 12 and 10, to the Darul Huffaz Academy for intensive Quranic studies, even though they are already attending religious schools.
"I don't want them to be slack during the holidays," she told The Straits Times.
"It is the duty of parents to ensure that our children get the best guidance in Islamic education," she added. "I believe my children are in good hands."
Yong Yen Nie
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