Dr Maszlee Malik tells StarEducate why he won’t be ‘shoe’-ed away from fixing the nation’s education sector.
HE has come under fire for seeming to focus on trivial issues instead of tackling the major problems plaguing Malaysia’s education system but Dr Maszlee Malik takes it all in his stride.
The first-time politician was thrown into the deep end when it was announced that he will be heading the biggest ministry in Malaysia — the Education Ministry with the previous higher education ministry merged back into one huge portfolio.
His first six months as Education Minister has seen him being dubbed “Menteri Kasut” (Shoe minister) and being called out for going against his word to not have politicians placed in key university positions.
He has since agreed to step down from his position as International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) president.
Dr Maszlee who focused on terrorism studies while teaching, won the Simpang Renggam seat in the 14th general elections on May 9 and is the second academic to hold the Education Minister post.
An avid reader, he loves reading novels, especially Paulo Coelho, but has had to trade these in for Parliament notes, reports and even school books to better understand the education system.
“I also love watching movies. I cannot hide that,” he adds with a laugh.
Dr Maszlee is known for peppering his speeches with movie quotes and says his favourite movie is Star Wars: Episode VI - The Return of The Jedi.
As he sits down in his office on the 18th floor of the Education Ministry (Higher Education) in Putrajaya, he shares his plans for the nation with StarEducate.
What was running through your head when it was announced that you will be the Education Minister?
Change. I want to reform the education system especially when I looked at the previous situation with many Malaysian parents, especially those who are well off, shying away from our national schools. There are a lot of critiques on our students’ abilities to express themselves in English and their lack of this and that. So, when I was given this huge responsibility, I thought: “Wow, this is the time for change.”
That’s my national service at least for the future generations of Malaysia.
The Education Minister position has always been a hot, very politicised seat. Did you think it was going to be this hot for you when you first took it?
I got into politics and was then picked for this position but I’m still rather new in politics. So people are looking at me not purely as an educationist but a mixture between the two.
Some of my friends say that I’m only 5% politician and 95% an educationist.
I’m kind of bullied you know. When people pick out somebody to bully, they will pick on the most vulnerable one. So, when some people look at me (they think) this is the new kid on the block, this is our freshie, he’s our junior, he’s not well-versed in politics - let’s pick on him.
This is very sad because for me, what I’m thinking of is only to reform education so that it is in a better position and the only thing that comes to my mind is a better future for our children. Politics comes at the bottom of the list.
How did the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU) 1971 affect you when you were an academic?
We (academics) have been warned by many not to go into politics or even attend a Bersih rally. We are told we cannot do or write something as otherwise disciplinary action will be taken against us.
I have seen how my students who are involved in a lot of noble things with the hope of changing Malaysia into a better country by fighting against corruption, the kleptocratic government, they have been punished by AUKU. Most of them, they were bright students. It was sad to see them being brought to the university court and being penalised.
Could you please clarify whether these amendments to AUKU would allow political parties to set up branches in public universities?
It depends on the students. I don’t think any student will want to do that and it depends on the university senate.
The most important is the empowerment and the total autonomy of the university. The power rests in the hands of the senate. As a minister in the Pakatan Harapan government, I couldn’t interfere with them anymore.
You mentioned that you want to take away all the extra paperwork for teachers. Is that possible for 2019?
These are unnecessary paperwork. You’re talking about documentations, forms and whatnot. We have to realise that some of the forms are redundant.
Yes (it is possible in 2019) because we are not working alone. This is where we work closely with the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP). I would give a lot of credit to NUTP who work with us in representing the teachers and other teacher associations and societies.
You have said that one of the ways to inculcate good values among students is by having a “good values manual” to be read out at school assemblies. It was reported that the manual will be based on Islamic teaching. Why aren’t other religions’ teachings also included in the manual, which will be read out to students of different faiths?
There has been a lot of misunderstanding about it. I really want to make the point here that it is not a manual of Islamic teaching or education. It is a manual of universal values.
When I asked the Islamic Studies Division to write the manual, they were very smart and professional. They invited many representatives from other religions to be with them. There were Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. I gave them clear instructions that all the values we want to inculcate, must be universal. Those values could be accepted by followers of all religions.
Could you tell us more about the abolishment of exams for pupils in Years One to Three? Will this affect the Dual Language Programme?
We’re starting with Phase One pupils — Years One, Two and Three — next year.
Actually, the very idea of this multi-assessment of pupils is not new. It was there but for whatever reason, it got lost in translation and then the implementation. I don’t know but people just feel comfortable coming back to the conventional system.
It (education) is about how to unleash everybody’s best potential. We can do that. We can start small. The first step will lead to further steps.
We’re talking about tests, projects, activities, their involvement in certain co-curriculum. We’re very comprehensive. Just imagine, normally, when people are talking about exams, it’s always about grades.
During report card day, parents will come to meet the teacher. The teacher will give their report books, which consists of numbers and grades A, B, C, D, E, pass and fail. We are going to change that into better reporting and looking at the comprehensive development of the children.
For example, teachers will start saying to parents: “Oh, your child is brilliant when it comes to singing and sports. He needs to improve on his mathematics and we will work together on this. He might need to read more books in English to improve his English. Or maybe he might need to improve something but don’t worry, we will work together.”
We want to create that kind of culture. A culture of love. A culture of mutual respect.
Nowadays, there is a culture of mutual disrespect and distrust among parents and teachers that actually started with the examination-oriented mentality. We want to change that culture. With this new approach (away from being exam-centric), teachers and parents will work together.
The Dual Language Programme will go on.
Some say exams are needed because it is a clear way to assess students while others believe it has removed their childhood. What do you have to say to those who believe exams are needed?
One thing people misunderstood about not having exams is that actually it is not ending or putting away exams. It is about not having exams as the only way to assess and evaluate the students. We’re talking about multiple ways to assess the students, exams are only one part but it’s not going to be the only big thing, unlike what happened back in our days. It’s about shifting away the teachers, students and parents from this exam-oriented culture.
Are teachers ready to carry out these more objective assessments?
I think some of them are ready while others may not be really ready but we have our training. Throughout the training, we will guide, assist and prepare them and make them comfortable with this new approach. Hopefully, this will bring back the trust of the parents to the teachers, and the teachers to the parents because there will be no blame game anymore.
Do you see that happening anytime soon?
If I had a magic wand, that would happen overnight but Rome was not built in a day. I’m sure that along the way there will be hiccups here and there but it’s better to give it a try.
Budget 2019 reduced the budget for the supplementary food programme and as we know, healthy fresh food costs more than processed and fast food. How will the ministry overcome this problem?
I think breakfast is very important for children. It’s very pitiful when I visited a few schools, most of the children do not have breakfast before they go to school. Nothing hurts my feelings more. When I ask them if they have had their breakfast, I find out that most of them are saying no, and they are waiting for 10am at recess to have their school meal.
So, this is where I will try to negotiate with the Finance Minister for a supplementary budget.
I just can’t bear seeing students coming to school with empty stomachs. I must make sure that they have something to eat when they go to school.
Do you want to keep politics out of the education system?
One thing I want to make sure is that politics will never abuse the education system. That’s for sure. I want to make sure that this politician won’t make money out of education. I won’t make any wealth out of education.
I’ll make sure the mechanism is there for people to monitor, not only me, but to monitor the ministry and also to monitor my officers. That, I can give my promise and I’ll try my best.
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