IS the Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik’s recent controversial remark a storm in a teacup? Or, as a DAP politician stated, a storm raging and dividing Pakatan Harapan?
The Education Minister, during a question-and-answer session at Universiti Sains Malaysia on May 16, said if Malaysians do not want the quota system, then job opportunities should not be denied to bumiputras. Maszlee claimed that some companies required job applicants to know Mandarin.
Malaysians – depending on their views on race politics – were enraged or delighted with the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia supreme council member’s remark.
DAP’s Sungai Pelek assemblyman Ronnie Liu described the controversy as a raging storm that was dividing the supporters of the ruling coalition.
“I think he (Maszlee) was not happy when he was criticised on the 90% bumiputra and 10% nonbumiputra intake policy for matriculation. He thought it was a win-win solution. He got shocked when we told him otherwise,” Liu reasoned.
“He has a bit of an ego. And he did not want to admit that he made a mistake and he started to talk nonsense.”
Liu said Maszlee was racialising the matter with half-truths: It was not true that Chinese taukes would not hire a Malay for a job requiring Mandarin fluency. If the applicant could speak Mandarin, they would employ her.
It was quite shocking to learn that the Education Minister, to quote MCA vice-president Datuk Seri Ti Lian Ker, was “still stuck in the old mindset of race and this is a disappointment to the expectations of educational reform in a new Malaysia”. Shocking, as the pre-Education Minister Maszlee was perceived to be an uber-Malaysian.
To get a better insight into the seemingly changed man, I contacted a Pakatan leader.
“I’m a little bit disappointed with what’s happening. If you look at his history, you would never expect that he would say something like that. He used to be more of a guy who respected multicultural ideas and wanted to build on multicultural Malaysia. But, over the last year or so that he has been a minister, he has changed quite a lot,” said the politician who did not want to be identified.
Maszlee, he said, was positioning himself as a vice-president candidate in the incoming Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia polls.
“And this is him campaigning. Basically, doing and saying whatever is necessary to position himself as a Malay champion. And, it’s quite disappointing to see someone who has the potential to bring a new Malaysia going back to worse than what it was when Umno was in government. Even Umno did not hype it up like this,” he said.
When I contacted Maszlee’s officers about his so-called political ambition, they declined to comment.
James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, however, believes Maszlee was not making controversial statements on purpose.
“The fact is the Education Minister has always been a controversial post in Malaysia. The problem, as we all know, is the quota system and active discrimination against non-Malays in the intake process,” he said.
“This issue is a ‘sacred cow’ to the Malay community as they know higher education is a key to social mobility – everyone thinks it’s a zero-sum game thus the racial thing is always present.”
To Chin, Maszlee’s statement that non-
Malays could afford private higher education was more controversial. The Simpang Renggam MP, he said, should have given a proper explanation that nonbumiputras dominated private higher learning institutions because they have been shut out of public universities.
He added that the popular belief in Malaysia is that private higher education institutions have a higher quality – measured by English standards and employment – while public higher education institutions (except for research universities) are places from which one could get a degree via a back door or matriculation.
The Education Minister should instead focus on lifting the quality of education across the board and leave racial politics to Umno and PAS, said Chin.
“By bringing up racial issues, he is simply playing into their hands and directly telling the non-Malays that higher education in Malaysia will always be about producing Malay graduates and nothing else.”
On the political impact of Maszlee’s controversial remark, the Pakatan politician said its short-sightedness meant that a new narrative for Malaysia is not being built.
“They are going back to the narrative that was not even used by Umno. Even Umno was moving in a different direction, in terms of bringing people together. Now, with ministers like this – trying to climb up the party’s political ladder the easy way – is dividing the country further,” he said.
He thinks the controversy is weakening and dividing Pakatan.
“The demonisation of DAP is something that Umno and PAS started. And when someone as senior as Maszlee joined the chorus, it means that the narrative set by Umno and PAS on how DAP is a party that Malays can’t work with is succeeding and playing to the gallery like that is bound to disrupt the dynamics in Pakatan.”
How serious is the political fallout then? Is it just a storm in a teacup or are there bigger ramifications in terms of politics?
The political fallout can happen in two ways: one between the Pakatan Harapan parties, and the other within the country, said the Pakatan politician.
“In the long run, how long do we want to build on this ethnic division? And as long as we play using this line, what will happen is the dynamic within Pakatan will be further strained,” he noted.
It is the same Malay versus Chinese political playbook that is being used. And it is working.
“But if you’re in charge of education, you are supposed to be the one forging a new narrative for the country,” the politician said.
Pakatan did not fight hard to win GE14 to become worse than Umno, he lamented.
“I cannot remember when was the last time an Umno minister played the sentiments to this extent. It is shameful as this not what we are about.”
Some Bersatu politicians caught in this storm have remained silent. For a few it is all about political expediency.
“There are groups within Bersatu that still subscribe to the old idea that it is all about Malays versus Chinese. And now that Maszlee has become their spokesperson, they’re going to rally behind him,” said the Pakatan politician.
“And those who do not rally behind him will stay quiet. If they say something, then they will be seen as the odd one out.”
This is also the same reason some Amanah and PKR politicians are remaining silent.
“The sentiment in the country at the moment is that the Malays are under threat. In a situation like this, when a minister makes a statement defending Malay rights and attacking the Chinese, no one can afford to go against that kind of sentiment. If they do so, they will immediately be accused of being a DAP lapdog,” said the politician.
He also said that DAP politicians should be more careful when making a statement that could hurt any particular ethnic group.
“DAP leaders need to know that as soon as they touch on the Malay agenda, it will be seen negatively by some Malays. They should go through the official channels such as the Pakatan presidential council,” he said.
“We made noise internally and when we saw Maszlee personally we gave him a solution on the matriculation quota, and yet he still came out openly to talk nonsense. Do you expect us to keep quiet?
“This is about Maszlee. This issue has got nothing to do with Bersatu or whether it is about Malay or Chinese,” he stressed.
If that’s the case, it looks like Pakatan can weather this racial storm in the teacup.