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The Star Says

Sunday, 13 August 2017 | MYT 12:00 AM

Free our young from the baby elephant syndrome

YESTERDAY was World Elephant Day. It was the sixth instalment of an annual campaign that aims to rally together people and organisations on the issues threatening these gentle giants.

We had a shocking reminder a week ago, when a 10-year-old pygmy elephant was killed at a plantation in Kinabatangan, Sabah.

We should care because elephants play an important role in maintaining ecosystem balance. And their strength, intelligence and social behaviour have long been reflected in culture and folklore all over the world.

For example, have you heard of the baby elephant syndrome?

Also known as the chained elephant syndrome, it describes a person who is conditioned at a young age to believe that he has no power to overcome limitations, real or imagined. And so he grows up never really trying to be more than what he is or to do more.

This is based on how men have controlled captive elephants over the years. Trainers have observed that when the calves are tethered with ropes or chains, the animals will eventually get used to the idea that they are simply too weak to break free.

It should take a lot more to restrain an adult elephant, but if it no longer even thinks about wandering off, all that is needed is a rope or a chain around a leg. This is called learned helplessness.

The key lesson here: It is crucial how the young ones are taught about living together in multiracial Malaysia.

The case of the primary school in Hulu Langat, Selangor, that introduced separate cups for Muslim and non-Muslim pupils, illustrates this point.

According to news reports, the students did not know the rationale for the practice. They just did as told.

Not that there is an acceptable basis for this. After a news portal ran a story and photographs on the school’s unusual policy, there was widespread disapproval and the Education Ministry ordered the school to remove the cup labels.

Asking the children to use different cups based on their faith creates an artificial and unnecessary division. There is the risk of them buying into the false notion that Muslims and non-Muslims exist in separate spheres that should always be kept apart.

What begins as a baffling rule for kids can grow into a hard line in the minds of adults. This is not what Malaysians want or need.

It is good that the Education Ministry has urged the public to report any discriminatory practices in schools to the district education offices and state education departments. At the same time, these matters must be handled with sensitivity and understanding. While parents are right in expecting schools to treat students equally, they too must be fair and calm in how they respond to what they perceive as discrimination.

Jumping to conclusions, spurning opportunities for dialogue, and recklessly shaming people on social media are not the best actions for our children to emulate.

Let us not be a nation shackled by the baby elephant syndrome.