'I am fighting for all Malaysians'- New Straits Times, 3 Jun 2019
Hana Naz Harun and Beatrice Nita Jay - June 3, 2019 @ 8:00am
Dr Maszlee Malik has been embroiled in controversies since he became education minister on May 18 last year. If it’s not over the introduction of black shoes for students, it’s about racial quotas for the matriculation programme, and a perception that he has not done enough to improve the education system. But he will not let this faze him.
Question: You have been in the news quite frequently and it’s not always positive. What is your take on this?
Answer: For a politician, there is no such thing as negative coverage or bad news. News is news. When people are struggling to be in the headlines and even pay for that, you get all the headlines for free. So you should be thankful. Let’s take (United States President Donald) Trump as an example. People don’t say good things about him, but he won the presidency and he is going to win again. For him, bad news is good.
(Narendra) Modi is another example. Anyway, that is how I calm myself: To look at the brighter side. Because there are a lot of minister colleagues who are not known to the public. They say “Eh menteri ke ni?” (This person is a minister?) And they are hardly in the media.
Q: Lately, you have been criticised over some issues, including from your Pakatan Harapan colleagues. Has this affected your work?
A: Criticism is part of the challenge. No pain, no gain. We take constructive criticism as suggestions and take them into consideration. If there is anything negative, then we try to look at the positive side of it, because this shows that we are doing something. If we are not doing anything, people will not talk about us.
Q: On racial quotas for the matriculation programme, what is your side of the story?
A: It was blown out of proportion. My speech at USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia) was part of a town hall where there were discussions with students on university autonomy, empowerment of students, campus elections and campus unions. Towards the end, I was asked about the quota system in universities. I explained that entering university is not only through matriculation. Matriculation was part of the Bumiputera agenda in 1999 to correct the imbalance between Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera students for science courses in public universities.
In 2002, the cabinet decided to make the quota 90:10. This year, when the issue was brought to the cabinet, it was agreed that the 90:10 quota should be kept. However, when we noticed that there were many excellent non-Bumiputera students from the B40 (bottom 40 per cent) group, we decided to keep the quota, and increase the offer to 40,000 students — 4,000 non-Bumiputera students and the remaining 36,000, Bumiputeras.
I explained to the student who asked me the question that when matriculation was first formed, many Malay students from the B40 group were unable to enrol in private universities, but many non-Bumiputeras could afford to do so. If we did not take any affirmative action, we won’t be able to see Bumiputera students in public and private universities. This would then create an imbalance since Bumiputeras are the majority, and this would affect the working environment later.
I also said that as a whole, there would be an imbalance in the working world if job opportunities are denied to those who do not know how to speak Mandarin. This exists and it isn’t something new. Since this was taken out of context, the only thing people could see was that I am racist. In fact, I was labelled an ultra-racist Malay.
The students were dissatisfied that I said the Chinese are well-to-do and they felt that I was generalising and denying there weren’t any Chinese people in the B40 group. I did not mean that. I have Chinese family too and Chinese voters in my constituency from the B40 group. To help make this right came the idea of shared prosperity from the prime minister, where all assistance would be given to the B40 group, regardless of their race and background.
But people refused to see that, and sensationalised the part where I said the Chinese are all rich. I tried to make things right again and spoke about how matriculation is not the only way to enter university. I mentioned STPM (Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia), teacher training institutes, foundation centres, polytechnics and diploma studies.
I spoke to Tun (Dr Mahathir Mohamad) about it and he told me not to worry since he has been called that as well. He told me there was nothing wrong with that since we were just addressing the interest of Malays, just like how Indian MPs address the interest of the Indians. I said for me, it’s okay, Tun, but now, even my Chinese friends are afraid to be associated with me and even my Chinese family is shunning me. But that is politics, and Tun told me that I was on the right track because at the end of the day, the people know I am fighting for all Malaysians.
Q: Despite the quota for non-Bumiputera students in matriculation programmes, there are many with straight As who still can’t get a spot. Does that mean all non-Bumiputera students who get in have straight As?
A: Yes, but you must know one thing. We give priority to B40 students, whether Bumiputera or non-Bumiputera.
We try to guide students and parents to look into other bigger opportunities and not look at matriculation as the only path. We have a lot of other promising courses and jobs out there that go beyond matriculation.
Q: So matriculation is here to stay?
A: If we insist on continuing to talk about matriculation, then this year, for the first time, we have 4,000 non-Bumiputera students from the B40 group who managed to get into matriculation. This number, although it may not be big, is meaningful.
There are plenty of other opportunities, apart from matriculation, and even Form Six. We have diplomas, foundation courses, teacher training institutes, polytechnics and others, but people rarely talk about them.
There are no (racial) quotas for polytechnics, Form Six or teacher training institutes, so why don’t people want to enrol there? We need to expand and look at the bigger picture, and how we look at jobs of the future.
I have to admit, we do need to work harder to disseminate information and guide people on future jobs and courses.
Q: Do you feel racial integration among students is at an all-time low?
A: Yes and no. In this social media world, people like to sensationalise a lot of things. But yes, I would say that our younger generation do not mix around as much as we used to.
Sometimes, common interests bring them together. Things like online games, football… that’s what we would call “new integration”. But that’s not enough. To be honest with you, more needs to be done. I keep talking about holding inter-racial and intercultural activities at schools, and even between schools from different streams. We have sekolah agama (religious schools), fully residential schools, science schools, vernacular schools, international schools, Chinese private schools and more. All these schools should come together and hold co-curricular activities to encourage integration.
Q: Do you think abolishing different types of schools, including national and vernacular schools, and creating one school system that has the attributes of all will help cultivate racial integration?
A: This is a hot potato, but to have a single stream school system would be the ideal situation.
But then again, you have to admit that vernacular schools have been there for more than a century. Changing this is not impossible, but cannot be done in a short period. A lot of work needs to be done. At the moment, my priority is to bring people together to have more time to interact with one another and to understand each other more. This is where the ministry’s mantra, “Love, Happiness and Mutual Respect”, comes in.
I would like to see Malaysians regard themselves as Malaysians first, rather than their affiliation to race, ethnicity and language. But it cannot be done overnight. I’m trying my best to bring people together at least through their common interests.
Q: What about the concept of Sekolah Wawasan, different types of schools sharing common facilities, to foster racial integration?
A: There have been mixed results. There are pros and cons. But the way forward is to look beyond everything we’ve had in the past, and for this, we might need a new formula. The key for this, I think, should be our national language. I’m trying my best to get people to love our national language, to embrace and appreciate it.
Q: Will the ministry organise a campaign to encourage parents to send their children to national schools so that the schools will be more multiracial in composition?
A: That’s part of our promise, our manifesto.
Q: Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said that the Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) policy will be reintroduced.
A: We already have the Dual Language Programme (DLP) (where Science and Mathematics are taught in English in selected schools), but I think we should go beyond PPSMI and DLP. We should try to find a better way to enhance the English proficiency of our students.
Q: Sarawak is moving ahead and teaching Maths and Science in English next year. Will there be a mismatch between the national education system and what Sarawak is doing?
A: The disparity in performance of schools in Sarawak, Sabah and Kedah (and the rest of the nation) is already there. So (Sarawak’s move) is derived from (the disparity) and it is a part of our intervention or affirmative action to help Sarawak.
The state government realises that it needed to fix something to improve the performance of students in Sarawak, so to say that they will outperform others is unlikely. Now, they are being outperformed by the others.
Q: Can students cope with the teaching of Science and Maths in English? Are vernacular schools up for it?
A: It all depends on the teachers. This is why the Sarawak government is willing to invest a lot in teacher training and they are working closely with other parties as well.
The support from the state government is important. In Terengganu, for example, the state government puts emphasis and support on education, and you can see the level of education improving. In Johor, too.
Recently, I had a discussion with Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir on efforts to help Kedah. They are also looking at the approach taken by Sarawak to use English.
As for vernacular schools, we will need to discuss this with them.
Q: What about the rest of the country? Are there plans to implement PPSMI?
A: We’re moving beyond PPSMI. Now, we have DLP. DLP will be enhanced under the 11th Malaysia Plan.
Q: With the upcoming National Education Policy Review Committee report, does that mean the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 will be scrapped?
A: It will be integrated. The base of the report will be the blueprint itself, taking into consideration what needs to be improved and improvised.
Q: You have urged for less focus on students’ examination achievements, but we still see schools celebrating students with excellent results. How will the ministry overcome this?
A: It’s not easy to change a culture, but it should start somewhere. I don’t believe in forcing or penalising others. They will change eventually, but that would take time, and slowly, they will get used to it. We are trying our best to convey to teachers and schools that they need to appreciate the potential of every individual. Some students are good in academics, where they are good in scoring in their examinations, some are good in skills, sports, arts and so many more. We need to appreciate all those differences.
The world is so colourful. We cannot glorify one set of achievements and deny all the others. The world doesn’t work that way. A comprehensive and holistic view of education is to celebrate differences and achievements in various areas. This is where we have the appreciation for superhero teachers (guru adiwira), PAK21 teachers (21st-century learning teachers) and innovative teachers. Even now, schools have begun to appreciate other achievers as well. When I visited a school in my constituency, they also gave appreciation to athletes and those who are excellent in the arts.
Q: In line with making schools less exam-oriented, will the ministry consider abolishing the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah and Form Three Assessment?
A: We will talk about it later.
Q: When it comes to public universities, they appear to be focused on their ranking.
A: I think since last year, we have been giving less focus on making the ranking our goal. This is to ensure we don’t sacrifice the spirit of higher education itself. The goal now is to ensure that our public universities are a research centre for the clusters that we have. Some clusters are research universities, management universities and entrepreneurship. That way, we will create a brand in the international level. Among universities that have shown really good improvement in this are Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Perlis and Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka.
Q: What is the ministry’s plan to ensure schools are equipped with the same facilities since there is a large discrepancy between urban and rural schools?
A: We’re trying our best to ensure better quality infrastructure in all schools. But again, we must admit that we are tied up with limitations financially. That does not mean that we are neglecting those schools that are in need. This is why we try to improve dilapidated schools first by repairing them with whatever allocation is available in the ministry’s coffers. In the meantime, we also invite external parties, through public-private partnership, to help equip schools, not only with infrastructure, but also other ways that will benefit teaching and learning.
Q: The prime minister has given the cabinet a rating of five out of 10. What rating would you give yourself?
A: I think it’s fair enough for a PM who has been there twice, the first time 20 over years ago, and now witnessing how things are happening. To have five out of 10 for the cabinet, only after a year, shows a kind of achievement for me.
However, if you ask about rating myself, that would not be fair. My dad always taught me that it is not good for anybody to evaluate himself. Let the results speak for themselves.
Perhaps you can ask the parents of disabled students who have now been accepted into schools or parents with undocumented children. We have more than 2,000 children who have been accepted into schools despite not having documents, and the school is helping them get documented. These students are back in school when, previously, they were on the streets and prone to be victims of social ills.
Perhaps you can also ask parents of children who come from B40 families who have been accepted into boarding schools. Previously, you will see boarding schools being attended by children of top guns, well-off people, but now you can find nearly 60 per cent of children from the B40 group being given places at fully-residential schools. You can ask those parents to evaluate me.
You can also ask teachers who are now free to unleash their creativity to teach students in Years One, Two and Three, to give the best to the children instead of being trapped in mid-terms and final exams. They will be able to give a rating, better than any other people.
You could also ask students in universities who are now free to conduct activities without interference from (the) student affairs (department). Many opposition leaders are also going to universities to be involved in debates and forums. Ask students who are now conducting campus elections on their own and no longer being directed or instructed by the student affairs department and are now moving forward to establish students’ unions. You can ask them to evaluate my performance. They can evaluate me better.
Q: Do you, therefore, feel that people have been unfair to you and that you are misunderstood?
A: I don’t feel that way. What I feel now is people are helping me know myself better. I feel very grateful to the people. Despite the negative and destructive comments, they are pushing me or forcing me to understand more about myself. This one year, I have been exposing myself to things I’ve never explored before. I try to challenge myself, my capability and understand what has been hidden within myself that I never knew was there before. So, I would like to express my appreciation to everyone, although some have sent petitions (asking me to step down) and criticised me, but these have shown me the weaknesses in myself that I am working on to correct. I know there is room for improvement and people will know me better.
The most important is I would like to express appreciation to everyone involved in the education sector. Before becoming a minister, I may not have been able to understand or appreciate the role of clerks at school, the role of teachers in rural areas, the contribution of gardeners and even security (personnel).
I may have not been able to understand the value of government servants who work relentlessly to ensure the quality of education delivered to our students. In this one year, I have learnt to appreciate everyone in the education sector, whether they are from the ministry, non-governmental organisations or even the media. I have learnt to also appreciate the role of Malaysians in the education sector, which gives me the confidence that we are on the right track and we have to move as one big family to rebuild this nation.
I started to learn that I needed to be grateful and to thank everybody. I need to love everybody to continue my journey as a minister of education.
And I need to say to everybody, I love you 3,000.
That phrase, ‘I love you 3,000’, I found it very meaningful, especially when I say it to the kids. I must thank (US actor) Robert Downey Jr. I think that sentence comes from him and I found that kids love it when I tell them ‘I love you 3,000’.
Q: So you feel that your team should be like the Avengers in working together?
A: Not my team, but the whole Malaysia should work together like the Avengers.
Q: You seem to be an Avengers fan. Who is your favourite Avenger?
A: The Hulk, when the role was played by Lou Ferrigno. That’s the best Hulk.
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