Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s nonagenarian prime minister for the second time after a previous stint over five parliamentary terms is now back in the business of discarding delinquent and disappointing ministers. Dr Mazlee Malik, a 45-year old academic who had held the education ministerial position since May 2018 is the highest official of the 20-month old Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to be advised that he had to go. Maszlee went without a whimper. In fact he took leave of the position on a fond and touching note of filial gratitude to his party boss and prime minister. He showed no indignation whatsoever.
His removal took place at a time when there are constant reminders that the PH government is still new and has to be given more time to complete its agenda, including the fulfilment of their election manifesto. Such dispensation is being asked because they inherited a legacy of the highest government debt, mismanaged parastatals and record levels of embezzlement, kleptocracy, abuse of office and corruption.
That the axe would fall in this merciless way on Maszlee is unusual in Malaysia. Maszlee is a relatively young urbane gentleman with promising years ahead and he had to quit ministerial office at barely 45. He could have switched portfolios with another minister or be appointed to another position somewhat on par with a ministerial position. A whole array of options are still available to keep him in the public eye.
Instead he has been mauled and hounded out of ministerial office as if he had been implicated in some heinous, unforgivable crime or misdemeanour. He went so gracefully, like the old gentlemen of yore.
Maszlee may not know this well or remember it. It happened five years before he was born. In the Kota Star Selatan parliamentary constituency one Dr Mahathir Mohamad lost to a PAS candidate, Haji Yusoff Rawa in the 1969 general election, the fourth for the country.
Mahathir did not take that loss lightly. He capitalised on it and blamed the then prime minister for his loss and started a process that led to the prime minister himself losing his job. Then that prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman a qualified lawyer and public servant of royal-aristocratic pedigree went gracefully. A god fearing man, he forgave Dr Mahathir but never forgot what he did. This he would repeat occasionally in his twilight years.
Dr Mahathir, in hindsight did what bankers do very well these days. When the banks make huge profits, the bankers get annual bonuses often exceeding their annual incomes. When the banks suffer losses , the public purse is used liberally to bail them out. Dr Mahathir was, in his own terms liberally compensated for that electoral defeat.
Dr Maszlee was only named education minister when it was made clear to Dr Mahathir by his PH coequals when they were still flush with voice and vigour that he could not have that ministerial post in addition to being prime minister. It was a poisoned chalice that was handed to Maszlee.
He was to single handedly succeed two ministers, his higher education and education predecessors. Both the ministries were large and unwieldy given the rapid expansion of secondary and tertiary education since the 2000s. The country’s education system was in a rut. Yet it was a core portfolio that was traditionally given as a stepping stone to promising political leaders who were seen to have bright careers. The best evidence of the parlous state of education was offered recently.
An increasing number of non Chinese pupils are currently attending Chinese schools.The largest group of non Chinese were from the bumiputra community who accounted for 77,537 pupils out of the total of 521,053 pupils. There were also 14,072 pupils of Indian origin and 5,807 others whose parents had opted out of the government -run federal bureaucratic education system. Maszlee would have learned of this preference shown by the majority Bumiputra community but he had other more sinister challenges closer at hand to face in his enlarged education portfolio.
The federal education system is run at a functional and operational level by education officers and teachers. They have a small support staff. There is management and policy oversight of this education system by the Malaysian Administrative and Diplomatic Service( Perkhidmatan Tadbir Dan Diplomatik in Bahasa Malaysia) or PTD for short.
The PTD officers, often parachuted from the other higher regions of the 10,500-strong service run the Ministry of Education and all the other ministries and the powerful Public Services Department and the Prime Minister’s Department.
They have a support or auxiliary staffing of tens of thousands and a very adequate budget. Within the Education Service and the PTD service there are elements that are antagonistic to the other side. Additionally within the two services there is constant contestation on matters relating to Islam and how much of that should constitute or influence the school curriculum.
Then there is the higher education area which has public and private universities which total more than 75 with various inputs provided by the state governments and the well connected and profit oriented private sector. Maszlee was required, with his appointment in May 2018 to be the superman from Simpang Renggam, his constituency in Johor, to bring order, organisation and respectability to this dysfunctional system.
He could not have done the job peacefully as there would have been constant sniping and suggestions from everywhere and some weighty instructions particularly from the Cabinet and his prime minister. In these circumstances he did the best he could. He did those things over which he felt he had full authority.
He had his town-hall sessions, his planning and implementation with his bureaucracy and professionals who would have been at loggerheads. He had his own ideas, his failings and successes. He knew the importance of teaching good English in schools but could not say it as it would have been offensive to some vested interests. There is also some feeling that in competitive Southeast Asia Malaysia was lagging behind in the quality of education. There were highs and lows.
He had however to fail, this creditable academic from the rarefied world of reading, research and rationalisation. He had to contend with vice chancellors of the universities who all felt this was a greenhorn, a powerless underling of the mighty Dr Mahathir. The rough and tumble of a demanding political constituency, a press and media force and the public with their newfound freer Malaysia proved to be formidable for Maszlee.
Maszlee has now left this thankless job, dumped on the wayside. The country owes him gratitude for his service, his honesty, humility and hard work. He was not a perfect fit for the job. But he did all he could in times when expectations were running unrealistically high. He was also at the mercy of a discredited previous government leadership that seems to have a way with friends and funds to capture the main narrative with cyber troopers.
Dr Mahathir shared the double M initials with Maszlee. The first speculation was that there were two other candidates with the double M initials to succeed him. The writer’s view is that too many double M’s are not necessarily suited in the cabinet.
Malaysia needs a seasoned politician with vast experience, academic excellence, management experience and considerable tact vested with authority to run this most important institution of the future generation.
That individual has a difficult task to convince the bureaucracy drawn from the education service and the PTD to ensure our schools and institutions of higher learning concentrate on teaching, learning, research and development of character that values hard work, honesty, loyalty, simplicity and humility. He also has to have a free hand to keep politics and religion out of the education system.
No foreign preacher should be regarded or treated as an icon in the proposed reformed system.
Dato’ M Santhananaban
The writer is a retired Malaysian ambassador with more than 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG