The Curious Case of Maszlee Malik

We all remember the uproar in May 2018 when Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that he will be taking on a second Cabinet portfolio as Education Minister, contrary to Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto which states that the Prime Minister should not hold any other positions in the cabinet. Which is why I sighed with relief when Dr Mahathir relented and allowed Dr. Maszlee bin Malik to take up the role of Education Minister instead.

Dr Maszlee was already a well-known academic at the time, with a doctorate in Political Science from Durham University, and to those of us who are in the business of politics, his brilliant and radical thesis on Islamic governance made his name a by-word for moderate Islam.

But the months that followed his appointment was perplexing when the Ministry of Education, with Dr. Maszlee at the helm, made a series of strange and controversial decisions that were comical at best and dysfunctional at worst.

First came the infamous black shoe policy, followed by news of political appointees being placed at the top management of public universities. Grand institutions of learning became arenas for racially-charged meetings, and a crackdown on student activists was soon under way. The final nail in the coffin was of course, the Jawi issue. While many Pakatan Harapan supporters blamed other quarters for planning the new Jawi-imbued school syllabus, it cannot be denied that it was executed under Dr. Maszlee.

But I remember that Dr. Maszlee was, and still is, a respected academic of great intellect. Why is he now so bogged down by badly thought out decisions?

Perhaps it was the fault of some civil servants who gave him bad advice, or perhaps he was only following the instructions of a puppetmaster in Putrajaya. Whatever it was, we cannot ignore the good that he has done, such as the free breakfast programme for poor students, the introduction of administrative helpers for teachers, the abolition of streaming in schools and examinations for lower primary years, the widescale effort to repair school buildings in East Malaysia and the allowing of children without birth certificates to enrol in national schools.

Perhaps, too, he was removed not because he was not progressive enough, but that his vision of progress clashed with that of someone else. Someone powerful.

His resignation was most irregular; in the 48 hours leading up to the news of his quitting, he was still very much interested in being the Minister of Education. He attended launches and private events, and was publicly photographed gambolling with schoolchildren and teachers on their first day of school. As late as 11am this morning, he was in an interview with musician John Bear happily chatting about education. This was not the gait of someone about to throw in the towel a few hours later.

But when he stepped out of the meeting with Tun Dr Mahathir this afternoon, the axed had already dropped. When the sun rises tomorrow, he will no longer be the Minister of Education.

Was he pressured to quit it because he angered certain parties for allowing Telekom Malaysia Bhd and Maxis Broadband Sdn Bhd to take over as the Internet service providers (ISPs) for national schools from YTL Communications Sdn Bhd? Or was it because his Deputy, who took care to listen to the rakyat, announced that without 51% approval of either parents or the PTA, Jawi cannot be included as part of the syllabus in a particular school, disrupting some kingpin’s grand scheme?

Maybe we will never know. But this we do know: unlike certain politicians from a component party of Pakatan Harapan, Dr. Maszlee is not a man of sleaze and scandal, with a closet chock full of skeletons. It would be hard to find a reason that can compel a man of such integrity to leave an office he is so passionate about. And so, as the questions continue to pile up, we bid Dr. Maszlee adieu. We shall never forget, and will continue to discuss for years to come, the Curious Case of Maszlee Malik.

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