Ridding Cabinet of Deadwood

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

Nothing will irk you more when a supposedly learned guy comes up with a supposedly brilliant idea that not only sounds childish but downright amateurish. That is how I felt when not-so-newly-minted Education Minister Maszlee Malik suggested that hotels allow the use of their swimming pools to teach school children to swim.

I have all along thought that this multi-lingual, multi-talented and fortyish Member of Parliament for Simpang Renggam, Johor, was the right guy for the hyper-sensitive post of education minister. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir had chided that Malaysians, in general, need to be educated as many were still ill-informed about developments within the country. He cited the 1MDB debacle as a case in point.

To overcome the problem he had offered himself as a candidate for the portfolio. He was forced to decline after considering the coalition’s pledge that the prime minister should not hold other posts besides the one in hand. That is how a very obscure Maszlee came into the picture. All said and done, Malaysians missed a golden chance to be “better educated” due to this lingering election promise.

Maszlee is part Chinese and part Malay. Having the best of both cultures many opined that he would be the perfect candidate for the post. The performance of past education ministers, under Barisan Nasional, was nothing to shout about. They were merely stooges of a decadent ruling coalition and were apt at making the most out of their tenure as a federal minister.

The needs of the education ministry were more often sidelined for reasons best known to them. Rocking the boat was the last thing on their mind.

Nonetheless, there were attempts made to prepare an education masterplan plan to uplift the declining standards of education in the country. But, like all things else, it never got past the drawing board.

Education in Malaysia has been in the doldrums since the 1980s. We are regressing, not progressing, each passing day. Today with religious fanaticism slipping into the system, the heydays of the 1950s right to the 1980s, are nothing much but for the fortunate few to reflect upon. And those who missed that golden period have not the faintest idea how things were then.

Maszlee Malik defeated incumbent Datuk Liang Teck Meng, the Secretary General of the Malaysian People’s Movement Party or Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia for the Chinese-majority seat of Simpang Renggam, Johor in the historical General Election 14 on May 9. Maszlee stood as a candidate for the Malaysian United Indigenous Party or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia of which Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is chairman and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is president.

The first gaffe Maszlee committed was suggesting that the standard white shoes worn by school-going children be changed to black shoes. His reason was simple – children need not spend time washing and whitening their shoes as they do now. Shoe manufacturers were up in arms. A change, they reasoned, would incur loss as old stocks are still plentiful. So the order was temporarily shelved and will only be implemented in 2021.

And not wanting to outdo the black shoes ruling he came up with a sock policy. The reason he proffered was the colour of the socks should complement the black shoes.

After five months on the job, it is becoming painfully clear that Maszlee does not have a clue as to what is bugging our education system and lacks the wisdom to correct it. While he made references to decreasing teachers’ administrative burden, he has done nothing about the laughable national syllabus, overcrowding in classrooms and the shockingly low level of English proficiency of our graduates. And not forgetting the gradual “islamisation” of national schools which is rather frightening, to say the least.

He would do well to start addressing the fundamental flaws of our education system and make efforts at bringing all of our universities, not the one he wanted to preside, to a global level of respectability. If he is not serious about setting our education system on the path of recovery, perhaps it is time for the prime minister to replace him with someone more capable. He is, by all reckoning, the numero uno deadwood in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) cabinet.

Initial euphoria felt by Malaysians following the May 9 defeat of Umno/BN at the polls is fading as reality sets in. Noises are getting louder amidst lower expectations of PH’s election promises. Generally, Malaysians are thankful that Dr Mahathir has come out of retirement to lead the country once again and create a “New Malaysia”.

Mahathir’s move to introduce the International Standard Organisation (ISO) anti-corruption certification in all high-risk government agencies is laudable. The ISO 3700 certification for the Anti-Bribery Management System will be applied to all ministries, agencies, departments and government-linked companies to prevent corruption and develop a culture of integrity effective January 2019.

The overall performance of PH ministers to date is “mediocre”, to quote one former Umno stalwart who described the Pakatan Harapan government as “chaotic” and “had failed to fulfil its election promises”. Some ministers he said were still behaving like opposition politicians and are still adjusting themselves to their new-found roles.

While reviewing the cabinet Dr Mahathir had twice – in September and October – stated that he was not satisfied with the performance of his cabinet. “If possible I want something that had been directed to be settled yesterday not today,” he said during a media conference on September 7. On October 21 he was quoted as saying, “if I have to grade the cabinet members I would say their performance is between 40 and 50 per cent. But they are learning fast.”

In spite of the gloom, there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are some very capable individuals in Mahathir’s cabinet. I wish to single out Transport Minister Anthony Loke and Environment and Energy Minister Yeo Bin Yin as the most resourceful and proactive cabinet members. Hard on the heels are Finance Minister Lee Guan Eng, Labour Minister Kulasegeran, Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo and Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali.

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