The minister who fell from grace

  • The Bowerbird Writes
  • Monday, 06 Jan 2020

WHEN the Sinar Harian group asked me to start the Bicara Minda talk show for online TV, my choice for the first guest was obvious.

Dr Maszlee Malik had been Education Minister for only two months when the programme was broadcast live on July 19,2018.

It was a full house at the Karangkraf Hall that day. In fact, it was the show’s second biggest crowd so far; only my interview with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad some months later attracted a larger audience.

As we took our places in front of the cameras, Maszlee loosened his tie and folded his sleeves. He wanted the session to be informal.

Almost an hour into the interview, I asked him what he wanted to do in the near future. Not his priorities, but things he thought that must get done soonest possible.

He paused for a while before saying, “Saya nak murid-murid pakai kasut hitam.” (I want schoolchildren to wear black shoes). The hall erupted with a show of approval.

That statement unfairly redefined him. “Kasut hitam” became a label associated with him. Newspapers editorialised about a minister who failed to set his priorities right. Black shoes, they argued, should be the last thing in the scheme of things associated with the ministry.

For almost one hour with me followed by an hour-long question-and-answer session with the audience, he spoke on almost everything about his ministry and his vision for the future. Sadly, it was the black shoes move that got the most attention.

But the parents were happy. White shoes are burdensome. They have to be washed and whitened almost every day. I don’t really understand the fuss. In many countries, black shoes are part of school attire. Most private and international schools in Malaysia are making black shoes compulsory.

Unfortunately, those parents who are thankful about the new rule are keeping quiet. The noisy few probably do not even have children in national schools.

Maszlee is not without fault, of course. He has made mistakes. There are policies introduced that are probably not well thought out, thus creating unnecessary controversies. There are issues that could have been addressed differently. He was seen as trying to pander to certain groups, which offended others.

The truth is, our education system is not uniting our people. We are allowing diversity to divide us when it comes to education. Our children, unlike those in most other nations, are not going to the same kinds of schools. We have been championing the cause of our respective races at the expense of a truly united Malaysia.

Maszlee did not start the rot in education, which began decades ago. We lack the dynamism to bring education to the next level. We are bogged down by petty issues based on communal demands. We are straitjacketed by our own selfishness.

We are bickering on almost everything. Maszlee, who lacks political clout, certainly couldn’t survive this. He had too much on his plate and he led one of the most unmanageable ministries in the history of the land.

As for his resignation, we saw it coming. He has been at the bottom of the approval list in many surveys. The final nail in the coffin was Tun Daim Zainuddin’s recent criticism of the minister for not getting his priorities right.

Perhaps Maszlee is merely a pawn in the bigger and complex scheme of things. There may be more to it than meets the eye. When things go south for any government and when unhappiness prevails among the populace, one has to find a sacrificial lamb. Maszlee is a natural choice under such circumstances.

Ironically, he was supposed to be the rising star in the constellation of young leaders of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the party founded by Dr Mahathir. The former academician was thrust into the limelight when fielded as a candidate for Simpang Renggam in the 14th General Election.

I am not arguing about his contribution to the ministry. During the media conference on Thursday to announce his resignation, he spoke extensively about what he had done over the period that he had been Education Minister. We can dismiss this as an unapologetic display of his failures, but let history judge him on the short if eventful time at the ministry.

To be fair to him, he has shaken our public universities to the core. He has pushed for a culture of excellence in more ways than one. He knew how our public universities are being perceived. He did not start it, but he embraced the idea of industry’s involvement in helping universities to address their relevance and the marketability of their graduates.

More important, although controversial, he looked at one of the things (mundane to many) that matters to parents and students – the black shoes. But then, we were expecting miracles from him, thus his fall from grace.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years, chairman of a media company. He is passionate about all things literature and the arts and is a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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