An increase in caning in Malaysian schools may follow a national debate on the issue spearheaded by the education minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
While in Britain Labour leader Tony Blair's admission that he smacked his three children has reopened the corporal punishment debate, in Malaysia the caning issue has touched a national nerve.
Many Malaysian parents clearly feel the cane is essential to control increasingly unruly behaviour, particularly in urban schools. In a society which places great emphasis on the traditional Asian values of respect for authority and obedience, such behaviour is deeply troubling.
Typical of these views is a letter which appeared in one national newspaper: "How do you think a policeman will be respected if he cannot have access to a gun and his handcuffs? The same thing applies in a wider sense to the question of whether a school teacher should have access to a cane or not."
The educational establishment is cautious. Child psychologists have talked about the risk of permanent mental scarring and the teaching unions have also expressed doubts. The secretary general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession said that teachers should not be additionally burdened with imposing discipline by caning as it brings with it more paperwork and counselling duties. Much of the debate is not about whether caning should be allowed or not, but about who should carry it out.
Caning is currently restricted to the school principal, the discipline teacher or a teacher authorised by the principal. Caning is restricted to serious offences including fighting in class, smoking and gambling. The student must have been warned previously, another teacher must witness the caning and the incident must be recorded.
Now, if the hawks have their way, the cane will find its way back into every classroom, to be used at a class teacher's discretion. It is this licence that troubles some parents and many pupils. Callers to one of the national polls complained of teachers flinging exercise books out of a second-floor window because an eight-year-old was unable to write properly, screaming abusive words, punching, pulling hair and publicly humiliating pupils whose hair was considered too long. Issuing such teachers with a licence to cane, it is argued, will result in more serious abuse.
Now after the weeks of debate the education ministry is poised to form a new disciplinary procedure for schools. If the voting is anything to go by, an increase in corporal punishment may well follow. An early opinion poll in the New Straits Times reported 61.8 per cent favoured caning.
In a country where criminals are regularly sentenced to strokes of the rattan in addition to their prison sentences, it seems an obvious extension of the belief that instilling fear and the exercise of authority go hand-in-hand.
But there are hints from the education minister himself that the hawks will not have it all their way. "Whatever approach we decide on to improve discipline in schools," he is reported as saying, it must "show compassion and caring".