Back in May 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition rode the wave of change into central government after trouncing incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) in the national poll, a stunning event that was supposed to usher in a new chapter in Malaysian history.
Now in 2020, the government is licking its wounds over its first ministerial casualty, with Education Minister Maszlee Malik resigning, as of Friday, Jan. 3.
Maszlee was a deeply unpopular minister almost from the moment he took office and indeed was the odds-on favourite to be replaced as pressure grew on Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad late last year to reshuffle his cabinet and ditch ministers who the public perceived as not up to the job.
While PH lapped up the plaudits after wresting the seat of power from a deeply unpopular BN, which was mired in corruption and cronyism, the new administration did not bank on a public that was so hungry for the change politicians had promised that it had skipped starving and moved on to positively ravenous.
Transparent, clean government was the central theme of the PH manifesto, but it had also pledged more equality and to work towards ending the racist policies of its predecessor.
The voting public, quite rightly, assumed this meant the government was going to scrap Bumiputera — an institutionalised racist policy that provides financial and social benefits to Malays, at the expense of Chinese and Indians — or at the very least begin to walk it back.
At the core of Bumiputera is the rule that 90 percent of public university undergraduate admissions are reserved for Malays.
So, when a Malay minister from a Malay-only party says that such a policy will continue and — in the ensuing uproar — tries to add weight to his comments by saying Malays are denied jobs because they cannot speak Mandarin, you can imagine the mood of the people.
Not long after which, Maszlee again landed himself in hot water for not acting when a clutch of public universities organised the Malay Dignity Congress, which was in essence a right-wing gathering so Malays could stomp their feet and bash the Chinese.
Linked to this was the Education Ministry’s attempt to prevent a Universiti Malaya student from graduating after he used his graduation ceremony to protest the congress, his university and the part of its senior academics in the controversial event.
Hot on the heels of the congress fiasco, the ministry announced it was introducing “Jawi” (Arabic script) as a subject to primary schools nationwide.
Administrators at Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools, led by the Dong Jiao Zong group went on the offensive, calling for Maszlee’s head.
They made so much noise that Malay right-wing groups became involved, trying to counter what they saw as the uppity Chinese getting too big for their boots.
Meanwhile, there was also a furore over an incident at Methodist Girls’ School in Penang, where a parent alleged Christian prayers were recited in front of Muslim pupils.
The ministry came steaming in and, without a second thought or even attempting to investigate, made it known to everyone the school was at fault.
Maszlee tried to distance himself from these scandals, but as he did so, the public just accused him of failing to control his senior civil servants, which added fuel to the fire.
It was the end for the minister, as it seemed that he could do nothing right, not least bring an errant ministry to heel.
However, looking deeper into the issues that led to Maszlee’s demise, it seems likely his fall from grace was always on the cards. Taking on this role would appear to be the most poisoned of chalices.
Had Maszlee been Chinese or Indian, it would likely have been that his Bumiputera comments would have been taken with a resignation that to roll back this policy would be an uphill, long-term struggle.
However, as a Malay male from a Malay party, he painted a target on his back. Even so, while poorly worded, his later argument has merit.
Regardless of the education system, 60 or so years of racial division has meant recruitment into companies operating in Malaysia — from small family run businesses to major multinationals — is by skin colour as a matter of routine.
Even if the company has a no-discrimination policy, the likelihood is that someone in the hiring process has a racial preference and will pick accordingly.
This is a major issue of entrenched culture the government — aside from Maszlee’s comments — has avoided like the plague.
With the congress, there was little Maszlee could do because his own party leader, the prime minister, attended the event himself — ostensibly to keep a beady eye on proceedings — and, as everybody in Malaysia knows, to challenge Mahathir Mohamad is to gift wrap the end of your career.
Meanwhile, introducing Jawi to schools was actually a policy formed by the BN administration long before PH took over the reins, which Maszlee was at great pains to point out but, with a public high on bloodlust, no one was listening.
Educationally, there is nothing wrong with encouraging children to learn another language and expand their cultural repertoire but the vernacular school system in Malaysia is a by-product of the British pulling out of Malaya in 1957.
Having been denied a seat at the big boys’ table in governing the country and paranoid they would be assimilated into Malay Muslim culture, the Chinese and Tamils sought from the British a means to protect their own culture, language and way of life: vernacular schools, where children of predominantly one race are taught by teachers of only one race, in a system financed by one race.
It doesn’t need a rocket scientist to work out how little this type of education contributes to matters of integration and intercultural relations.
In the 21st century, vernacular schools and Dong Jiao Zong in particular — are an anachronism from an era that has long since passed.
The fear that their schools will be Islamified by bringing in Jawi is nothing short of siege mentality, which in turn stirs up counter sentiment from right-wing Malay groups.
In recent weeks, Dong Jiao Zong has tried to play down its objections, claiming that they are based on administrative technicalities but no one is under any illusion, given the repeated lampooning it receives on social media.
Meanwhile, how does a minister effectively control his ministry?
In Malaysia, herein lies the $64 million-dollar question.
Maszlee is not the first PH minister to have run-ins with the civil service. In fact, a number of ministers have publicly and privately complained of problems with their senior aides, with one minister openly accusing a senior civil servant of sabotaging his plans.
Malaysia’s civil service is a bloated 1.3 million-strong army, a hangover from the BN administration which favoured Malays and guaranteed jobs for life, excellent benefits and a cushy pension upon retirement.
Needless to say, there was a significant proportion of this army that also benefited from the cronyism and corruption of the previous government.
So, after 60 years of this kind of existence, a new government shaking things up is not a welcome prospect — and that’s just among those who are ‘clean’.
It comes of little surprise then that the number of volunteers willing to jump into Maszlee’s shoes is very short indeed.
Yet, when the dust settles the majority of Malaysians will not look back favourably on Maszlee who, like many education professionals, is an idealist at heart.
They are equally unlikely to pay much attention to what could be a lasting legacy for this nation: free school meals.
Introduced as a pilot programme a few days ago, children at selected schools in low-income neighbourhoods are entitled to a free, healthy breakfast.
If it’s successful (and the budget is already in place to roll it out), the programme will be expanded nationwide and every child in primary education can start their day’s studies with a nutritious meal in his or her belly.
In a nation that has a poor reputation for nutritional value, this is a major step forward and, it could be argued, is one of the most important long-term policies this government will introduce.
The studies already prove its benefits, with free or heavily subsidised meals for pupils a mainstay of education policy in countries from India to Scandinavia, to the U.S., where children demonstrate an improved academic and social education.
Unfortunately for Maszlee and despite his masterstroke, it would appear he did not learn the simple lesson that first impressions really do count, especially when dealing with the Malaysian public.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.