Is Maszlee a failed education minister?

Dr Maszlee Malik, the minister of education, seems to be getting a fail grade by many.

I am going to give Maszlee a 9.7/10 rating for excellence in effort; an A+ for effort and ideas, but maybe a C- for political and media communication.

I am putting all of Maszlee’s popular “failures” into a different context and construct. After that I will challenge any Malaysian to sit in Maszlee’s seat for 30 days in the ministry and Parliament to see if he or she can do any better than Maszlee.

First, I am going to place some ground rules about grading by sharing two anecdotes of my university days in the US. The first happened when I had taken a Drawing in Architecture class with Prof Kent Keegan of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. One other student, my junior who was an excellent artist, also took the class and I wondered why he was doing that. Probably he was thinking of cruising towards an “A”.

At the end of the semester, I got an A- for the subject while Mr Artist got a B. I asked Prof Keegan why, because if a stranger compared my final submission with his, he would note that I was never a match for Mr Artist. Prof Keegan said the reason was that comparing the results of my first drawing assignment and the 4th drawing assignment, I had improved a lot while Mr Artist never improved in any of his assignments.

So, the first rule of grading is individual effort in improvement.

The second incident also happened in the US, at a Quran reading class held by a professor of physics Dr Abdul Fatah at our surau.

There were five of us sitting in a circle individually reciting the Quran while the teacher corrected our mistakes. When it was my turn to recite I had made seven mistakes and was corrected by the teacher on all of them. Then there was another reciter who recited the Quran haltingly and made so many mistakes, but, to my surprise, the teacher corrected only five!

After the session was over, I asked why he had corrected all of my mistakes and had not done so for the other reciter. The teacher smiled and said: “I corrected every mistake you made because you are a good reciter. If I had corrected every mistake that other reciter had made, we would probably never see him again!”

So the other rule I learned is that of grading by considering individual dignity.

In other words, there is more wisdom required in grading than the simple way of expectation from the one trying to learn. Grading also involves the art of motivation.

Black shoes

Now, let us examine Maszlee’s so called “failures”. Let’s take the black shoes issue. What was wrong with his suggestion? People were laughing and complaining that Maszlee was looking at “trivial” things.

Let me regale Malaysians with two stories of the Prophet Muhammad.

The first story was told by the leader of a big tribe when he was invited to meet the Prophet to listen to his message. When he came in pomp and ceremony with his tribesmen he was met by a smiling Prophet who was, however, without pomp or ceremony.

As they approached the cushion where he was to sit, an old woman came out of nowhere to voice a complaint. The tribal leader was shocked at what happened next.

He saw the Prophet leaving him to listen intently to the complaint of this woman and only left when she retired from that place. When people later asked the tribal leader why he had accepted Islam, he replied “The man I met was not a king for a king would not entertain a mere subject interrupting the conversation between kings. He must be a Prophet for he is no king.”

The Prophet had shown concern for a “trivial” person in the old woman even though there was a great king or tribal leader before him.

God looks at all our deeds. Those we consider small and trivial are, in the realm of God, bigger than the mountains of the earth.

The second story is about how the Prophet found Bilal seemingly feeling very sad. When the Prophet enquired, Bilal said his wife had said things that hurt him simply because he was once a slave and she a free woman. The Prophet consoled him and he felt better.

That night, when Bilal returned home, his wife rushed to him and begged for his forgiveness. When he asked why, she told him that the Prophet came by their house and spoke to her behind the door saying “Bilal is feeling very sad for what has happened in this house. If he is sad I am also truly sad.”

That was all that the Prophet said, before leaving. The lesson here is that the Prophet felt concern and care for even “trivial” matters that would never be considered as “state matters”. He was concerned about Bilal as a human being, as he himself was.

Now let us put Maszlee’s failures in perspective. Maszlee was concerned about the mothers and children who have to clean shoes and he suggested an alternative.

No other minister has done this. Previous ministers were too busy ordering 400,000 tablets for teachers – some allege at twice the market price – or ordering Solar panels for Sarawak schools at what some claim are over-inflated prices. Only the investigating authorities can verify the truth of such allegations.

So, I ask those who have criticised Maszlee, and my other fellow Malaysians, did Maszlee abuse his authority? Was he “wrong” to put “trivial” matters to the fore?

There was also the “trivial” matter of lightening the load of teachers who were required to do nonsensical things on computers. My wife retired early because of a foolhardy administration and the overloaded work of punching numbers on the computer.

Maszlee talked about swimming lessons. Three of my five children can swim because I sent them to private schools. Both my wife and I and the two elder children can’t swim to save our lives.

Is it wrong for Maszlee to think of the safety and health of our children? Why are we so hard at heart? Just because there is now a democracy, it does not mean that we abandon compassion, emotion and wisdom and treat criticism of ministers like we do communicating in our Whatsapp messages – curt and cruel.

Then Maszlee announced there would be no examination for the first three years of primary school. Some parents complained of fear their children would not be motivated to study.

My eldest child went through three years of grade 3 to 5 in the UK.I never saw an exam paper in those three years. I did not know her position in class.

Was she cleverer than the British kids? Was she cleverer than the other Malaysian kids? Who cares. The teachers there treated all students individually. Their progress was not a competition.

We Malaysians are “katak di bawah tempurung”. We are so used to competition for our children. Maszlee came in and said “learning should be fun or else we should not indulge in it at all” (I am putting some extra words in his mouth using poetic licence).

Is it wrong for him to do that? Is it “trivial” to consider the stress on our children?

I understand that the number one disease among young adults now is depression. Where do you think it came from, my fellow Malaysians? Too many useless facts and too many exams lah!

To err is human

I admit that Maszlee has failed miserably with political and media communication. The “dakwah” issue comes to mind. Maszlee forgot that he was no longer an inspiring motivational speaker at a workshop trying to convince young teachers to do the best they can. He is minister of education to all.

Can we honestly fault Maszlee for trying to adjust from being a lecturer to a minister? Are ministers born as ministers? Can we all do any better?

It took me 10 years to understand what being an academic was all about. There was no one to show me the ropes. I had to learn the ropes myself. All of us have gone through misadventures when we tried to reinvent ourselves in new situations.

Where is the compassion? Where is the tolerance? Remember, before criticising anyone ask if you could do ALL the jobs better. If not you should only criticise one or two things and not rate the whole person for one mistake, or two.

What happened to the saying “To err is human, to forgive, divine?”

In the treatment of Maszlee Malik, Malaysia seems to be completely devoid of humanity or divinity.

The ministry of education is great fun for a minister who wants to make money for his or her family. This is where you can give contracts for computer laboratories at three times the cost. This is where you can allow a firm to hire foreign teachers to teach English when money should be spent more on books.

For the minister who wishes to change things for the better for our children and the future of our country, the ministry of education is like going through a minefield with a blindfold.

Anywhere and everywhere you step you will be blasted left and right, up and down.

So, I want to ask Maszlee’s critics: Who wants to be the minister of education for 30 days? If any non-Malay says “yes”, I can promise that Gagasan 3 will camp for three days and nights outside the ministry.

If the likes of Siti Kassim say “yes”, I am almost certain that someone like Lokman Nor Adam will be camping outside her house with a blow horn.

Changes in education are finally here; not all and everything that we want yet… but more will come. Maszlee has to tread where even Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad will drown.

Finally, I would like to honestly say that if I were Maszlee’s age, I would probably have only done half the things he has done. The ministry of education is crucial for our future, and thus far, I have no one in mind who can do a better job than Maszlee.

In the spirit of the New Malaysia we must exercise our newfound democracy with wisdom, tact and diplomacy. Yes, you are allowed in a democracy to rant, rave and shout. I have been to zoos that are quieter. Let us be intelligent. Let us be compassionate with our new leaders. Let us ask questions on specific issues, make clear and polite suggestions, if we have any.

Let us not judge the whole person on just one or two issues. If we do feel the urge to ask someone to resign or be given very low marks, ask ourselves first: In a Malaysia boiling with racial and religious disharmony, can we do any better?

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