Expert opinion: The case of Mohamed Thaqif Amin – organisational failure to safeguard and protect

As a qualified mental health nurse, social worker and holder of an MA in Criminology, the former social worker and management consultant, Jim Lim, has over twenty years experience in dealing with children and young people with special needs in north-east London.

On his return to Malaysia, Jim expressed his frustration, that the people who can make a change, in the lives of the children who have been physically and sexually abused, are merely paying lip service to helping them.

In this article, Jim gives a frank assessment of what should be done, to help these children.

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The case of Mohamed Thaqif Amin – organisational failure to safeguard and protect

The considerable public interest and press coverage of the subsequent death of Mohd Thaqif Amin continues as the inquiries continue. But, who is actually doing what?

The Johor Menteri Besar asked people not to speculate, and to wait for the findings and outcome of the criminal investigation.

With the so far inadequate responses together from the various key agencies which followed from the instances of attempted cover-ups and denials from the tragedy, can we have confidence that the investigation will be far reaching and address the shortcomings and failures? Will “politics” once again interfere with the outcome?

In the article, I want to highlight 2 things.

the areas where failures occurred resulting in the poor environment which increased the risk to our children and,

the needed steps that should have been taken speedily following his hospitalisation which unfortunately did not. (Or, if they did, it was not reported, perhaps through a fear that they were not confident of what they were doing.)

An example of the poor “safeguarding measures” in places where our children spend long hours away from families and carers. I am referring to schools, play centres, substitute carers of course.

We can understand if there is no system of regulation in place covering informal carers or voluntary care centres (Tadika) but we cannot accept a registered school not having basic procedures in proper vetting of staff and any published child safety policies within the school.

All schools, whatever their denomination or special status, must be subjected to regular inspection and monitoring as to its meeting its core aims of education and development and within those objectives, to do so in a climate of care and safety. Who should do that? The Education Ministry primarily and supported by the Welfare Ministry.

Laws on corporal punishment are missing

Malaysia does not have clear cut laws on corporal punishment. That is the main problem. In Mohd Thaqif’s case, the Assistant Warden probably had a free hand without being spotted and admonished by his superiors. Equally, his peers felt unable to complain although it is a shame.

This type of school setting; corporal punishment allowed, absence of guidelines on what is safe and what is not tolerated, e.g. bullying, an absence of staff recruitment guidelines, little external regulation carried out, internal regulation involving parents likely to be absent, exemptions in various areas due to special schools all contribute to a toxic environment which does not prioritise child safety and protection.

Once Thaqif’s situation was discovered, the School should immediately suspend the employee. This urgency would demonstrate the school’s acknowledgment of the seriousness of the case and where the alleged perpetrator is immediately removed, so as to prevent him committing any more or, preventing any interference with evidence, in such child protection inquiries.

The Welfare Ministry would be notified and would have the responsibility of conducting an objective review of the case. The School would only participate in this child-centred review, not lead it. The School would conduct its own review of its standard operating procedures or internal rules and regulation, attending to issues of policies of recruitment, monitoring, pupil relationships etc. The Welfare Ministry’s terms of reference would be “what happened, what and who was responsible and what implications for schools” all over and other key policy issues affecting the safety and continued welfare of children.

The Police would be called in too, as there may be criminal charges at a later date. The evidence may also come from the inquiries, taking place now.

The process above would be widely reported so that the public can be reassured of ‘determined action’ taken speedily, to demonstrate that this tragedy resulting in his death is unusual and must not happen again. In this case, it seemed that the family appeared denied their side of the story and deliberately kept out of the news. They will grief in private while the Authorities search for a ‘public relations’ solution.

The Star report

The Star newspaper reported on 27th April,  

– that almost all the pupils shivered at the mention of Asst Warden’s name, who had a history of violence, as reported,

– the school principal said they have investigated the matter and stated that the school is not to blame,

– the same principal said Police advised School not to say anything as Police investigation continuing,

– when asked why the school employed someone with a history of violence, the Johor State Islamic Authority said it was up to individual schools to appoint whoever they deemed suitable,

– The Islamic Authority later stated that in the light of this, they will be drawing up guidelines for the future for schools, in recruitment policies.

My responses to the above revelations are;

Was the School not aware of other children’s fear of this employee?

Was the School too quick to absolve itself of blame?

Was the School using the Police investigation to avoid incriminating itself?

Was the Islamic Authority negligent in respect of staff recruitment, without giving guidelines?

Was the Islamic Authority admitting its own failure? now that it intends to draw up guidelines for schools.

Culture of subservience and fear

Forgive me if I am currently unable to change my belief that institutions in Malaysia only pay lip service, most are not interested nor have the competency to implement simple procedures, such as have all prospective employees be subject to criminal background checks prior to taking up post.

To develop a nationwide register of people unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults, etc. My cynical thought is that such tragedies still remain small and it does not affect them (politicians) so why bother? It is more tempting to blame the individual unruly child or their bad parenting. Institutions are left out of any blame.

Finally, there is a culture of subservience and fear running through many public sector institutions and to a large extend, non-governmental organisation which rely on Government funding. Many civil and public servants, however respected they are in their specialist fields will soon learn that their expertise is worthless unless it meets the approval of politicians of the ruling administration. Unless there is a vote catching element to it, measures for the public good and any proposed legislation as such are kept on shelves for years. An example most related to this case is of the Social Worker’s Act, which has been in the Attorney-General’s Department for over 10 years.

From my own observation since my return to my country of birth, the notable few recognisable agencies attempting to promote and professionalise the protection of children are almost all within the NGO sector, including a UN agency, UNICEF. The numerous service providers of early education and care again are all within the voluntary sector although the Permata Programme appears a relative successful initiative.

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By Jim Lim, former social worker in London, England

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