Will the real Maszlee please stand up?

With the installation of a new government, Malaysians are developing a new culture of tolerance, questioning and learning, while at the same time unlearning the negative traits of the past administration. This may seem a herculean task, but if a 92-year-old is willing to come out of retirement and make the change for the nation, nothing is insurmountable.

People all over the world have praised Malaysia as a new beacon of democracy and hope where a corrupt and decadent government was disposed of in a peaceful and orderly manner. But we should not let our unity and the fruits of our hard work slip away because of intolerance and bigotry.

Many of us have followed the debate on the background of the newly appointed education minister, Maszlee Malik. Never before have we put newly minted ministers under the microscope in such a manner and checked their credentials and backgrounds in such detail.

With the internet, it is easy to check people’s backgrounds these days: with the click of a button, you can pull up a person’s past speeches, writings, pictures, etc, all archived on the World Wide Web.

The questioning of Maszlee’s leanings shows that we have come a long way as a nation. Under the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, we were forced to speak in hushed and guarded tones. But, like AirAsia’s slogan “Now everyone can fly”, now everyone can have an opinion, now everyone can have a say. Freedom can be dizzying.

According to prominent Muslim activist Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, one of the main concerns regarding Mazlee’s appointment is his purported Salafist leanings and his support of Zakir Naik.

Malaysian Academic Movement chair Zaharom Nain said: “As for his alleged ideological leanings, we believe that he is at least the devil that we know, rather than any purported angel that we don’t.”

Such a statement is neither reassuring nor helpful.

Lawyer-activist Siti Kasim questions his stance as a “progressive Muslim”. She believes the current education system is heavily influenced by religion.

“I don’t believe in indoctrination from any kind of religion. We should be educating children, not indoctrinating them. How do we know that he would not impose his religious leanings on the education system?” she said.

Businessman Anas Zubedy, meanwhile, called on Maszlee to clarify the uncertainties surrounding his ideologies, saying otherwise he must “submit to the uncertainty and end up the victim.

“There is nothing more crucial in legitimate leadership and power as the ability to remove uncertainties,” he said.

Others, like Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming and Petaling Jaya MP Maria Chin Abdullah, have asked the public to give Maszlee a chance to prove himself.

After being shackled for so long, Malaysians are now displaying a culture of tolerance, questioning decisions and at the same time, learning from the process. The public debate on this matter shows our maturity as a nation. This augurs well for the future of Malaysia.

According to Maszlee, his aim over the next five years is to ensure that the national school system becomes the choice of both parents and students. Rightly so, as many parents who can afford to do so send their children to private schools or overseas, shunning local schools because of their perceived inferiority.

On Zakir Naik, he must be ejected from Malaysia under the new government. If countries with sizeable educated Muslim populations like the UK and Canada hold his teachings as suspect, and if he is a wanted man in India, why should we harbour him and cause uneasiness among the people?

Even the Sarawak government banned him from entering the state to preserve religious peace. We must avoid the 1MDB trap where the outside world condemns but we pretend the problem does not exist in Malaysia.

Why do we ban the books of Malay intellectuals and groups like G25, but allow an outsider to preach toxic beliefs in our country? You deny your countrymen freedom of speech but let foreigners have a free hand in influencing the minds of your own people.

There are so many priorities in the reformation of education in Malaysia. Both educators and parents have already given plenty of feedback on the state of our education system.

Given his religious knowledge, one of Maszlee’s priorities should be to monitor the standard of teaching at tahfiz schools. These schools differ from other private institutions as each school sets its own syllabus with an emphasis on memorising the Quran. There are reportedly more than 600 unregistered tahfiz schools in the country, and they are not subject to any single system at the moment. Close monitoring is required to ensure that students are not exposed to extremist teachings or succumb to negative influences.

From now on, public figures will need to get used to the idea that the people have voted for change, and our leaders need to deliver. They will be scrutinised like never before.

These days, everything is transparent. People will watch your every move. With smartphones that can record videos and take pictures, and the internet which archives everything, it is hard to escape how others will view you as a person.

So, will the real Maszlee come out and explain his situation?

Joe Samad is an FMT columnist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.