Editorial: You Are Fired!

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

Maszlee Malik, arguably the most un-inspirational education minister ever, was finally shown the door by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It happened two days after New Year’s Day and was gleefully greeted by the long-suffering rakyat. He was in the seat for 20 months following GE14. He was assigned the hot seat by none other than Mahathir himself since he is from the old man’s party – Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. One other “infallible” fella from Perak is also from the same party.

The fact that he refused to go quietly, but made a mountain out of a molehill about his “achievements” while complaining about how his efforts were not being appreciated, goes to show that he had resigned reluctantly. Obviously, he had no plans of leaving. To gain a modicum of respectability, Maszlee insisted that he was “returning” the post to his mentor, the prime minister.

When Maszlee presented his 2019 report card, he was all smiles. He did not expect to be fired so soon. But some leaked examination questions set by Universiti Malaysia Perlis, including one which elevated hate preacher Zakir Naik to a religious icon, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Education Ministry washed its hands over the university’s exam question, which was roundly condemned as insensitive. Questions relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender were also posed. No one accepted Maszlee’s reasoning that the education ministry does not interfere with public universities’ autonomy.

Non-Muslims were still furious over the Jawi-lesson fiasco being forcibly shoved down the throat of Chinese and Indian primary students. Adding Zakir Naik to the controversy was like pouring petrol onto the fire. It confirms the suspicion that the education ministry was on an “Islamisation” mission all along.

Even if Maszlee did not have a clue about the university questions, the Education Ministry has to fix the problem and not plead ignorance. When he was questioned on the lack of educational reforms, he told critics to read his ministry’s report card instead.

It brought back memories of Najib Razak proudly holding a RM1 chicken and kangkong (water spinach) when people complained about the escalating cost of living in 2014. Maszlee was being irresponsible.

Maszlee Malik, for whatever he is worth, was never meant to be the Education Minister of the new government that replaced the corrupt Barisan Nasional government. Mahathir wanted the post himself. He announced on May 17, 2018, that he would take over the Education Ministry portfolio because “Malaysians needed to be re-educated”.

However, he gave up the idea when reminded that, as the prime minister, he could not hold other portfolios as it goes against Pakatan Harapan Government’s manifesto. Mahathir relented and appointed Maszlee the following day.

Never in his wildest dreams had Maszlee expected to be given such an important portfolio. He was neither a politician nor a technocrat. In fact, he was just a run-of-the-mill lecturer without even the benefit of heading a department. His selection had led many to believe that the old man was out to create trouble. Or perhaps he had an agenda up his sleeve.

Some six months into his appointment, the poor fella had earned the moniker, “Black Shoe Minister”, a comedic reference to his proposed switch of students’ shoes from white to black. He then got mired in the controversial International Islamic University Malaysia presidency crisis, creating uneasiness over his insistence to become the 7th president of the institution.

In November 2018, Mahathir complained that Malaysia’s national school curriculum needed to be revamped. The prime minister was not happy that Islamic subjects were given priority over students’ proficiency in English language, maths and science.

Too much time was allocated for religious studies. The prime minister argued that despite ample time given to religious studies, indiscipline and poor ethics were rampant among Malay students.

The premier told Maszlee to “overhaul” the school curriculum to produce citizens with good moral values, good work ethics and integrity. Something he had advocated during his days as Education Minister (1974 to 1977).

The next day, Maszlee proudly announced that his ministry would formulate a new curriculum, expected to be out by the end of 2020 or early 2021. The new curriculum would ensure that the subjects to be taught in school would not burden the students and teachers.

Malaysians were ecstatic. Finally, the government was doing something to correct the sorry state of the education system after 61 years under the old regime. Quality education would come soon, many reasoned. But nothing was heard since. Perhaps Maszlee did not really understand the prime minister’s requirement.

Less than a year after the black shoe fiasco, the education minister did it again. In his rush to defend the discriminatory matriculation programme’s special preference for Bumiputera (son of the soil) students, he had argued that if his critics did not want the matriculation quota system, then job opportunities should not be denied to Bumiputera because they do not speak Chinese.

The matriculation programme was designed to help low-performing Malays enter local public universities. The PM admitted it was actually a “back door” arrangement to increase university intake for the Malays.

The biggest brouhaha was none other than the introduction of Jawi lessons to vernacular schools. It is still an issue today and I find it hard to imagine how it could be resolved. While the nation’s attention was focussed on Jawi lessons in vernacular schools, Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (YADIM) dropped a bombshell.

A leaked memo granting permission to YADIM to conduct religious propagation in schools, polytechnics, community colleges, public universities and private universities made its rounds. It proved beyond a reasonable doubt that “Islamisation” was real and Maszlee was the man behind the project.

After being caught with their pants down, officials from the Education Ministry insisted that vernacular schools (Chinese and Tamil) would have the option of whether or not to allow preaching activities. But the words “optional” was not mentioned in the letter to YADIM to preach Islam in almost all types of schools.

Sure, the minister had done some good things like ending the ban on university students from being involved in political parties and access to education for the poor. Free breakfast for primary school children is commendable but it lacks transparency leading to allegations of cronyism and profiteering to the tune of between RM800 million to RM1.67 billion.

My take is, the education ministry was too complex a job for the former lecturer to handle. He has done enough damage and is beyond reproach. If the intention was to bring religious education to another level, he has succeeded, hands down.

On hindsight, Maszlee could be a pawn in the larger scheme of things. There may be more to it than meets the eye. When things go wrong and when unhappiness prevails among the rakyat, finding a scapegoat becomes the norm. Maszlee is the obvious choice.

I do not question his contribution to the ministry. Let history be the judge of that. But I am just being sceptical whether he got it right from the word go.

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