PETALING JAYA: The naming of a former academic as the new education minister has not gone down well with critics and rights activists, many of whom point to his leanings to Salafist Islam, the version of Islam similar to the one practised in Saudi Arabia that has inspired a host of controversial laws.
Critics have also raised concerns over Maszlee Malik’s past statements speaking out against non-Sunni followers, in line with the stand by Islamic authorities in Malaysia.
Some have expressed disappointment with Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s decision to give up the education portfolio.
An online petition that was started yesterday evening among others said Mahathir was the best man for the job, saying he would “bring much needed reforms to the education system in this country”.
Within less than 24 hours, the petition on change.org is fast reaching its target of 50,000 signatures, with over 40,000 signing it as at 1pm today.
Mahathir had initially named himself as the education minister, but was criticised for breaking a Pakatan Harapan (PH) promise that the prime minister would not hold any other portfolio.
“I cannot break (the promise) at the moment, unless of course there is a demand that I take up the education portfolio,” he said yesterday in announcing Maszlee as the replacement.
In the May 9 polls, Maszlee won the Simpang Renggam seat in Johor, beating Barisan Nasional’s Liang Teck Meng.
But there have been concerns that Maszlee, a lecturer at the International Islamic University before joining PPBM last March, had in the past sympathised with Muslim preacher Dr Zakir Naik, who is wanted in India over allegations of money laundering and extremism.
Known for his speeches critical of Hinduism and Christianity, Naik was granted permanent residence status by the previous government, sparking outrage among non-Muslim and civil groups who said his presence was a threat to religious harmony.
But he has received support from Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who is also closely associated with Maszlee.
Close to Perlis mufti
Maszlee was part of the Perlis fatwa committee when Asri first held the post some ten years ago.
Asri and his Perlis mufti department have come under scrutiny from a Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s (Suhakam) panel hearing into the case of missing Perlis activist Amri Che Mat, after the mufti was accused by Amri’s wife for harrassing her family for adhering to Shia Islam, which Asri had condemned as a threat to national security.
“After my own experience of listening to Maszlee Malik, that liberals should really look past his smiling, articulate facade. He is after all a close brother in arms of the Perlis Mufti, who is yet another hardliner pretending to be ‘moderate’,” activist Sheryll Stothard, who has been helping Amri’s family in the Suhakam probe, wrote on Facebook.
Vocal lawyer Siti Kassim, who is also involved in the Suhakam probe, was more hard-hitting, describing Maszlee as an intolerant Muslim who portrays himself as “accommodating and open”.
“His stand is not acceptance but tolerance. Maybe that is enough for some people but when people talk about tolerating a necessary evil and they are referring to marginalised communities and non-Muslims. The line should be drawn there,” she said on her Facebook.
“He considers Muslim like me as sesat (deviant).”
Attempts by FMT to get Maszlee’s response were in vain, and calls to him were cut short.