Malaysia tipped to get stand-alone HE department as minister quits

Prime minister acting as education minister after departure of Maszlee Malik

January 17, 2020
Malaysia flags

The premature departure of Malaysia’s education minister could spark a split between the country’s school and higher education ministries, according to observers.

Maszlee Malik’s resignation earlier this month is thought to have been prompted by missteps in the school sector, including his proposed free breakfast programme for 2.7 million primary school students – derided as middle-class welfare – and his widely ridiculed move to mandate black shoes as official uniform.

But media reports say that a letter sent by Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad to Dr Maszlee in late December, requesting his resignation from the ministry, also cited Dr Maszlee’s opposition to the separation of the education and higher education portfolios.

The two bureaucracies were combined into Malaysia’s biggest ministry after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won the May 2018 election. A source said Dr Mahathir had agreed to the merger at Dr Maszlee’s urging.

Malaysian media has reported that Dr Mahathir, who is acting education minister alongside his prime ministerial role, was considering separating the education portfolio. Speculation that such a move was being weighed up last August had been dismissed at the time by Dr Maszlee.

Penang deputy chief minister Ramasamy Palanisamy, a former political science professor, said the demands of a double portfolio had been Dr Maszlee’s undoing. “By having two ministries…the burden could have been reduced,” he wrote in Malaysiakini. “Why there was this merger into one entity continues to baffle me.”

Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia legal academic Muzaffar Syah Mallow said the merger should be reversed. “It will be very difficult for a single ministry under a single minister to give his or her full focus to problems faced by all the educational institutions,” he wrote in the New Straits Times.

If the portfolio is separated, it will be for the second time in five years. Originally created as a stand-alone entity in 2004, the Ministry of Higher Education was merged with the school education bureaucracy in 2013, only to be split again two years later.

A 2017 study found that both the merger and the subsequent demerger had been politically motivated and unexpected by staff. Despite the touted benefits of shared information, infrastructure and economies of scale, the union had achieved little – although this might have been because of its brevity.

As educationalists anticipate Dr Maszlee’s replacement with not one but two ministers, another possibility is that Dr Mahathir will keep the portfolio for himself. He had planned to appoint himself education minister after the government’s ascension in 2018, but desisted because the PH election manifesto precluded the prime minister from holding an extra portfolio.

While Dr Mahathir has vowed to step down as acting education minister once a replacement is found, there is speculation that this may not happen for months. Meanwhile, he has reportedly expressed willingness to fast-track his handover of the leadership to successor Anwar Ibrahim, potentially leaving him free to retain his education post.

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