PETALING JAYA: Prominent Muslim activist Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa said he was not surprised by the storm of protests that greeted the appointment of Maszlee Malik as the education minister, but said a bigger worry was whether the Perlis fatwa committee member has the courage to press ahead with the concept of Bangsa Malaysia and pressures from extremists on Malaysia’s schooling system.
“The main issue here is whether he has the same courage as Dr Mahathir in facing the two extreme camps in this country, the Chinese educationist extremist and the conservative Malay educationist group,” Farouk, who heads the vocal Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), told FMT.
A debate has been raging over Maszlee’s suitability for the post since he was named by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Friday.
Critics point to Maszlee’s defence of controversial preacher Dr Zakir Naik, who is wanted in India over allegations of extremism and money laundering.
They are also concerned with Maszlee’s leaning towards Salafist Islam, and his close association with Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who was recently summoned to a panel hearing on missing activist Amri Che Mat, who Asri had slammed for practising Shia Islam, which local Muslim bureaucrats label as “deviant”.
Maszlee’s supporters have alluded to his academic background and social activities, with others saying his defence of Naik was based on his belief in free speech.
Farouk said the criticism was expected, and questioned Maszlee’s openness as claimed by his supporters.
“If one were to argue that his defense of Zakir Naik was based on freedom of expression, then this freedom also requires him to grant the same to the Shias,” said Farouk, adding that it was only natural to link Maszlee’s opposition to the second largest Muslim denomination to his “Salafist” leaning.
“There cannot be a double standard in preaching for freedom of expression.”
Salafist Islam refers to a movement within Sunni Islam, with roots going back to Wahhabism, the supposedly puritan form of Islam that is officially adopted in Saudi Arabia.
Opposition to PPSMI
Farouk, a medical lecturer at Monash University Malaysia, who was once active with the Muslim Professionals Forum that Maszlee is also part of, said the calls for Mahathir to hold the education portfolio were based on the public’s confidence that he could initiate radical reforms in the sector.
This, he said, included the call by the Chinese education group Dong Zong to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate, and the pressure from Malay groups seeking to abolish the study of Science and Mathematics in English.
“Only he (Mahathir) has the strength and determination in facing this highly debatable issue,” said Farouk, who has supported past government initiatives under Mahathir to emphasise the use of English in schools.
“How do we compete at the International arena when we forego the most important language of science and technology in the 21st century?” he asked.
A policy championed by Mahathir, the Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English, or PPSMI, was aborted in 2011 by then education minister Muhyiddin Yassin, following protests from Malay groups.
The move was welcomed by Ikram, an umbrella organisation of Muslim groups, of which Maszlee is a committee member.
“We oppose any attempts to revive PPSMI because we are convinced that the decision by the education ministry is based on its internal findings,” the group had then said in a statement.
Maszlee, 44, who joined PPBM last March, won the Simpang Renggam parliamentary seat in Johor in the May 9 polls.
The former lecturer who taught subjects related to Islamic jurisprudence at the International Islamic University was named as education minister after Mahathir changed his mind about holding the post himself.
Mahathir said he would abide by a Pakatan Harapan promise that the prime minister would not hold any other portfolio.
But within 24 hours of the announcement, over 60,000 signed an online petition urging Mahathir to return to the post, saying he “will bring much needed reforms to the education system in this country”.