Will Saifuddin or Mustapa be the next education minister?

The resignation of Maszlee Malik as education minister does not really come as a surprise. It has been in the air for months now.

In fact, as early as last May, there were rumours of an impending Cabinet reshuffle in the wake of public perception that some ministers, including Maszlee, were not performing, but Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad shot it down. Asked to evaluate the Cabinet ministers’ performance he said he’d give them five out of 10.

Last September, there was again talk that Maszlee was going to be dropped but Mahathir denied it.

The rumours peaked in November 2019 following the disastrous defeat of Pakatan Harapan in the Tanjung Piai parliamentary by-election. When, on Nov 20, Mahathir mentioned a possible Cabinet reshuffle, the name of Maszlee was at the top of the list among those discussing the issue on social media.

Mahathir had then said the reshuffle would be made “after we study the achievements and capabilities of the existing ministers, and only then we will discuss the possibility of making a Cabinet reshuffle.”

It appears that the time to discuss this possibility is now, as Mahathir said, after receiving Maszlee’s resignation letter: “I will determine who will be his successor and an announcement will be made in a short time.”

The education ministry has come under severe criticism over the last 20 months. This includes policies such as the introduction of the Jawi script this year to Year Four pupils of vernacular schools and linking racial quotas for the pre-university matriculation course. Last week, controversy erupted over an exam question set by Universiti Perlis Malaysia which promoted fugitive preacher Zakir Naik, and other questions that appeared to have a racial slant.

These policies and actions since the May 9, 2018 general election have served to further divide an already divided Malaysian society. In recent months it has taken on a dangerous turn because some people have varnished many of these educational moves with a racial, and even, religious, brush.

What should have been differences of view over educational policies have become a clash between racial positions.

One important role of education in a multi-racial, multi-religious country is to create better understanding about the cultures or the various races so that peace, or at least tolerance, prevails. But that has not happened.

So, who will be the next education minister? Two names come to mind: Saifuddin Abdullah, the current foreign minister, and Mustapa Mohamed, the former minister of international trade and industry.

Saifuddin once served as the deputy minister of higher education, when there was such a portfolio. He is largely seen as a capable, energetic man with strong ideas on education. I believe he will be able to reset the education ministry on a course that will bring about some confidence and stability.

He also has another strong point: being seen as a moderate. This should help him get accepted by all levels of society, including academics, and mend the situation.

Mustapa is considered a clean man and a technocrat. He has held several ministerial portfolios and always carried out his work with the least fanfare. Capable and innocuous, he has never courted controversy and can, therefore, bring a sense of fairness and stability to the education ministry.

Even if Mustapa is not made education minister, I think it’s time he was brought into the PH Cabinet as his experience and strengths will prove invaluable.

Of course, with the forthcoming reshuffle, everyone will be wondering if Mahathir will use this opportunity to induct prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim into the Cabinet. If he does, then Anwar could very well be the next education minister. The PKR president is no stranger to the education ministry, having served as minister from 1986 to 1991.

But then again, you never know with Mahathir. And his “short time” is anyone’s guess.

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