KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's education ministry has moved quickly to try and dampen a controversy after non-Muslim pupils at a school were told to have their meals in the changing room.
Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan, who visited the school in Selangor's Sungei Buloh, said the move was not related to race or religion, The Star newspaper reported him saying.
"Let me make this clear. This is not about religion or race," he said, adding that the matter has been resolved.
He said the pupils ate in the changing room because the school canteen was under renovation.
But, according to the Malaysian Insider news website, he refused to be drawn into why it was difficult to provide suitable space for 28 non-Muslim pupils of the school to have their recess.
"The changing rooms had been used along with the canteen by all students since March, because the canteen can only seat 500 to 600 people. (The school) SK Seri Pristana has 1,300 students," Mr Kamalanathan told reporters at a press conference at the school canteen.
He said the school's Parent- Teacher Association was aware of the use of the changing room, which has a toilet and several shower stalls.
Pictures showing the non-Muslim pupils eating lunch in the changing room sparked an outcry online and in the media.
In a Facebook posting, Ms Gunesweri Kelly, a parent, said the children were forced to eat their meals amid foul smells in the changing room, alleging this was done so as not to offend Muslim students who are fasting during Ramadan.
Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Tuesday ordered a probe into the incident and promised stern action.
Said Mr Kamalanathan: "Previously, they had to eat by the drain and other unsafe areas but after this, I will make sure they only eat here in the canteen, since the renovation work has ended."
The deputy minister said that the issue must not be made into one that incites racial sentiments as it was only about an inappropriate dining venue.
The renovations, now completed, were to install glass doors for the teachers' section of the canteen.
The school children have been told they can now use the canteen again to eat.
Asked why it was not possible to find another place other than the changing room for the 28 non-Muslims to eat, he answered, "it has been done now", according to the Insider.
Still, parents who were present at the national school yesterday disputed Mr Kamalanathan's explanation, according to the news website.
It quoted two parents as saying the pupils were only placed in the changing room after the fasting month started.
"Why would we wait this long to voice our dissatisfaction if this has been going on since March," said Ms M. Neeta, 30, whose daughter is studying at the school.
Mr Kamalanathan earlier told the news conference that as far as the government was concerned, the issue has been resolved.
"The headmaster had good intentions but chose a poor location," he said, adding that the headmaster has apologised.
"He has apologised. I too apologise.
It won't happen again," he was quoted as saying by The Malay Mail online news.
The issue continued to draw a flood of comments on the Internet. Some people lambasted the school and the "Umno" government for not choosing an alternative place for the children to eat, like an empty classroom or the school hall.
Others dismissed it as a non-issue, including someone with a child in the school who said his own kid ate in the changing room before the fasting month.
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