On the outgoing of YB Dr Maszlee Malik, Minister of Education (Malaysia). (2 January 2020)

[Originally posted on my Facebook page]

I think it’s fair to say that human beings have a strong propensity to see what we want to see in current affairs and the world around us. As such, the ‘truth statements’ we hold to are often an interplay between the a priori, often affect-laden biases we hold, and our (often selective, always limited) samplings of ‘external reality’. I think this is as true in public affairs as it is in daily life, but with the added complication that our perceptions of news are also mediated by the media, who as fellow human beings bring their own worldviews and ideologies to work.

Take the news of YB Maszlee Malik’s resignation. Some see political manoeuvres of opposing sorts: on the one hand an act of subterfuge by DAP, working behind the scenes to undermine a Bersatu minister. On the other, a move by TDM to position himself or someone closer to him as Minister of Education. Some take the more prosaic view that Maszlee’s unpopularity in the public eye made his position untenable. Others point out that more unpopular Ministers are still in cabinet, so why Maszlee? Some praise his personal virtues; others malign him. It’s unlikely that everyone is right at the same time, and as an observer, it is difficult to adjudicate between them — but I can try.

I wouldn’t say that I am not political — I think all language and social interaction involve politics in the broad sense of the word, and I suspect those espousing ‘apolitical’ or ‘neutral’ status often use it to hide their ideological stance; however, as an early career researcher I consider it my work to try to understand things from as many angles as possible, within my limited means.

When the PH cabinet was announced in May 2018, I ‘liked’ all of YB Maszlee Malik’s social media pages and have even kept abreast with KPM’s key publicly available circulars. Like most Malaysians, I witnessed the swirl of controversy around his 20-month tenure; unlike most Malaysians, I tried also to get out of my inevitably secular, liberal, non-Bumi echo chamber and take the temperature in starkly different platforms, especially BM-language ones.

I do not have a conclusion about his short tenure. There will be more thinking to do, hopefully with people smarter than myself and, even better, with people who are privy to details which I, a mere member of civil society, am not.

But I think I can make a few reasonable claims:

1. I think YB Maszlee was different from the other Education Ministers we’ve had, certainly since the turn of the millennium. To me, he was unusual in that he was not a pure technocrat, who felt like one could reduce everything to bureaucratic rationality. He was consistent about education not just being about inputs, outputs and ‘delivering’ but also about human dignity and love (he talks about ‘cinta’ in so many of his public writing) — it is rare for somebody like this to be in a position of power these days, in my opinion.

2. Maszlee’s philosophy had an uneasy coexistence with KPM’s highly bureaucratic machinery, which was there before him and I think remains the status quo — and with it the politics of university rankings, PISA, statistics and ‘quality assurance’. I do not think this clash of ideologies ever truly got reconciled in his tenure, and as a result, my reading is that the best he could do was tinker along the edges and tell the best story he could.

3. He made several faux pas early on in his tenure which continue to rear their heads for the rest of his time at KPM. To name a few: ‘black shoes’, ‘swimming pools’, ‘medan dakwah’. Unlike many in my demographic group, I actually took him to be well-meaning in all these instances (even the third!) but in hindsight, they were ill-advised from a PR perspective and in the case of the ‘medan dakwah’ gaffe, insensitive to the people of East Malaysia. [And yes I know that ‘dakwah’ has more charitable interpretations, but put yourself in the shoes of East Malaysians who, often justifiably, feel that they get a raw deal. Context matters.]

4. Even so, the expectations were sky-high for YB Maszlee, maybe unrealistically high? In my memory I don’t think there had ever been as much scrutiny and press over a Minister for Education in Malaysia. Was the public as exacting and unyielding in examining Mahdzir Khalid and before him, Muhyiddin Yassin? Half the people I talk to can’t even name the former, even though he served a longer term than Maszlee. Perhaps it’s therefore worth asking why this was the case.

5. In truth, YB Maszlee has several meaningful achievements over his tenure, which probably don’t get enough coverage in the English-medium media. These include the restoration of dilapidated schools (Sekolah Daif), better accessibility for disabled students (OKU), improved internet access for schools (after the calamity of 1BestariNet, also hats off to YB Gobind Singh) and an actual concerted effort to reduce teachers’ paperwork (fingers crossed this works out).

As Malaysians await the appointment of a new Minister for Education, the pundits will continue dissecting his tenure. Was he friend or foe, hero or villain? Maybe the answer depends on who you are. Maybe, like all of us, he was a bit of both. There will no doubt be valid criticisms, but let’s be careful to think them over before shooting from the hip. Let’s also give credit where credit is due, and not beat a man when he’s down.

YB, if you ever read this, I want to say thanks for trying. I believe you when you say it was a meaningful experience for you and that you tried your best. You probably worked harder over the past 20 months than most of us, and for that I just want to record my thanks. Please give all the help you can give to your successor, for all our sakes — and may the sun shine on your future endeavours.

Tiong Ngee Derk
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

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