KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia faced mounting calls for stronger regulation of religious schools following a horrific fire at an Islamic boarding school that killed 23 victims, most of them teenage boys trapped behind the barred windows of their dormitory.
The fire broke out at a "tahfiz" school where students learn to memorize the Koran. Malaysian officials said there had been 31 similar fire incidents in the past but Thursday's fire was the worst seen in 20 years.
But media reports said the numbers were much higher. National daily The Star said 1,034 fires occurred in registered and unregistered religious schools from August 2015 to August 2017. Of these 211 were burnt to the ground, the newspaper said quoting data from the fire department.
Family members of Mohamad Haikal Abdullah, a 12-year-old who died in the blaze, were furious after reports emerged that the only door at the school's dormitory had caught fire and that the windows had metal bars, leaving the boys trapped and unable to escape.
"From what we understand, there was only one way out but they couldn't get through because it was on fire," Faizal Abdullah, Mohamad Haikal's brother, said while waiting for his sibling's remains to be identified outside a hospital morgue late on Thursday.
"How could they have escaped? How could something like this have happened? We want to know."
Fire department operations deputy director Soiman Jahid said on Thursday that the cause was likely to have been a short circuit or a mosquito repellent coil.
Authorities claimed the school had made structural changes to the building and had not secured a clearance from the fire department. The school denied this.
Muslim-majority Malaysia provides a secular education system, but growing conservatism has led to a boom in the number of Islamic religious schools, most of which are privately-run and not overseen by the Education Ministry.
Some have a curriculum similar to secular schools, but with a greater emphasis on Islamic knowledge.
Others provide more specialized education, such as tahfiz schools and 'pondok' schools, where students are taught in small groups in tiny wooden huts, popular in rural areas.
Inadequate regulation and training has led to a slew of safety issues at such schools, including reports of fires, abuse, and student deaths, religious leader Mohamad Asri Zainul Abidin said in a column posted on his Facebook page.
Some of the schools' owners had set them up simply as money-making enterprises or to satisfy their own interests, said Mohamad Asri, the mufti for the northern Malaysian state of Perlis.
"There are some ustaz (religious teachers) who failed in their education but still opened their own schools without the right qualifications or training," he said.
"Some low quality schools, in order to save costs, also take in anyone ready to teach even when they have nothing to do with the subjects they're teaching."
The Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said some religious schools were reluctant to follow government regulations because they did not want interference in their administration.
Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia who served for 23 years, said no lessons had been learned in nearly three decades, citing a similar tragedy that killed 27 female students at a religious school in 1989.
"I'm sad that this kind of incident happened again," he was quoted as saying by The Malaysian Insight, a local news portal after visiting the families of the victims on Thursday.
"Safety measures are very important. I hope after this, all schools will review (their safety standards) if such incidents happen."
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)