The man in the forefront of education matters

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 29 Jan 2020

KUALA LUMPUR: When Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong was in Year One in SJKC Yu Hsien in Jasin, Melaka, the Education Minister then was Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

That was 45 years ago.

Today, Dr Wee, 52, is MCA president and in the Opposition while Dr Mahathir, 94, is Prime Minister for the second round and (acting) Education Minister.

The biography of both leaders will not be complete without a chapter on Chinese education in the country.

Dr Wee is known to champion education issues, especially on Chinese studies, and helping bright students gain entry into public tertiary institutions.

His knowledge and ability to articulate the issues had made a difference.

Dr Wee pointed out that Dr Mahathir had rejected the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) in 1975.

Dr Mahathir was Education Minister (from 1974 to 1977) when the Chinese Independent schools started offering UEC in 1975.

The fight for its recognition by the government remains a long drawn battle and has become a political tool as well.

In its 14th General Election manifesto, Pakatan Harapan included the UEC recognition as an item.

DAP, who promised the Chinese community that UEC would be recognised once Pakatan took over the government, bagged 95% of the Chinese votes for Pakatan and won itself 42 parliamentary seats.

But the promise remained mere words at this point.

While some Chinese educationists harbour hope now that Dr Mahathir is the Prime Minister and Education Minister and is in a position to grant recognition for UEC without further delay, Dr Wee said he chose to remain cautious.

“Do not think Tun Mahathir will let you all have it easy,” he said during an interview.

Education remains a major concern for MCA, with government funding for its Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC) as among issues in Dr Wee’s radar.

While he might have lost count of the “unhappy moments” in 2019, he singled out TAR UC being deprived of the RM30mil annual matching grant from the government as definitely one.

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng had in Budget 2019 and 2020 taken away the annual matching grants from TAR UC that adds up to RM60mil to date.

The grants are meant for TAR UC’s operating expenses so that it can keep its fees affordable.

It was set up by MCA in 1969 as Tunku Abdul Rahman College (later upgraded to university college in 2013) to provide education for the Chinese who could not gain access to local public tertiary institutions or afford private institutions abroad.

Its mission is to help students from poor families. To date, it has produced some 200,000 graduates.

TAR UC had received a total of RM1.023bil matching grants from the government from its inception till 2018 that helped to keeps its fees low.

The money, Dr Wee said, was not for MCA but for the people.

In the absence of the matching grants, Dr Wee said MCA had started public fund raising last year and had collected RM1.5mil so far.

Dr Wee said the support from people and their words of encouragement had helped drive their mission during tough times.

“One man at a hawker centre just took out RM500 from his pocket and gave it to me, telling me to continue the good job.

“A relative of the late tycoon Loh Boon Siew, who had donated a lot to TAR UC, gave RM100,000 to the fund-raising drive,” he added.

On the political outlook in the country this year against a backdrop of much uncertainty, from jostling for power within and among Pakatan parties, speculation about the next prime minister to an upcoming snap election, Dr Wee said: “One day is too long in politics.”

Helming MCA since December 2018 and as one of the party’s two MPs now, he said he would continue to do his best.

To a question on how the Chinese would react with Umno collaborating with PAS, Dr Wee said MCA was of the view that the collaboration must be within the Federal Constitution and with moderation and inclusiveness intact in this multi-ethnic and religious country.

He reiterated that the cooperation between Barisan Nasional and PAS is issue-based and cuts across race and religion.

Dr Wee said PAS would not join Barisan, which is now a three-member coalition – Umno, MCA and MIC – but he did not elaborate.

Joining MCA in 1992 at the age of 24, Dr Wee saw a meteoric rise in the party, becoming its Youth chief and deputy education minister in 2008, deputy president in 2013 and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in 2014.

A civil engineer by training, he is a four-term Ayer Hitam MP since 2004.

He was the only MP from MCA after GE14 before the party’s Datuk Seri Dr Wee Jeck Seng won the Tanjung Piai parliamentary seat in a by-election in November last year.

Dr Wee also spoke on how cooperation within a party and among component parties could make a difference in politics.

He praised Umno grassroots leaders for being able to work as a team once the top leaders had made a decision on Barisan matters such as by-election candidates.

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