Here’s Why Former “Iron Lady” Rafidah Should Be Appointed As First Woman Higher Education Minister

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Jul 10 2019
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After history was made with the swearing in of Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail last year as the country’s first female deputy prime minister, more women have been entrusted and empowered with top positions never seen before. In May this year, Malaysia saw the appointment of Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat as the country’s first woman Chief Justice.


Last month, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad dropped a bombshell when he unilaterally appointed Latheefa Koya as the nation’s first woman chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Women’s representation in the Cabinet of Mahathir administration has 9 women – 5 ministers and 4 deputy ministers – arguably the highest to date.


However, based on the horrible performance of some of the male ministers so far, it appears there are rooms for improvement. Famously known as the “Shoe Minister”, Education Minister Maszlee Malik is perhaps the single most unpopular minister that should be replaced. He dare not discuss about controversial matters such as the recognition of Unified Examination Certificate (UEC).

Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik - Biodata Resume

Maszlee was also involved in the controversial IIUM presidency crisis. The education minister had even tried to make Bersatu more Islamic than PAS Islamist party when he gave his green light for the establishment of Indonesia Muhammadiyah University Prof Dr Hamka (Uhamka) to set up its first overseas campus in Malaysia, only to be condemned by the Sultanate of Johor.


True, Dr Maszlee was inexperienced as the education minister. But it’s also true that he had no idea what to do to overhaul the sickening national education system. It would take the 93-year-old PM Mahathir to point out, upon studying the school timetable, that too much time is allocated for religious studies. And in spite of the excessive time given to religious studies, indiscipline and low ethics remain rampant.


So, upon his return from Japan (Nov 9, 2018), Mahathir summoned Dr Maszlee. During their one-hour meeting, the premier told him to “overhaul” the school curriculum to produce citizens with good values, including good work ethics and integrity. The PM told him that he has long advocated schools teach high values and ethics from his days as Education Minister between 1974 and 1977.

Mahathir Mohamad - Honorary Doctor of Laws - NUS National University of Singapore

Thereafter, during a high tea session with Malaysians living in Singapore on Nov 12, 2018, the same event where Mahathir urged Malaysians staying abroad to return home, he said – “The current education system is bad. It needs to be revolutionised. What they learn (now) is not what they should learn. We need to change the curriculum and timetable and what they learn in school.”


You might dislike Mahathir. But during his first stint as premier for 22 years from 1981 to 2003, the education system was revamped in 1996 to provide for the teaching of Science and Maths in English starting in 2003. It was a natural and simplest way of increasing English proficiency among students to make them more marketable, knowledgeable and employable.


Unfortunately, Mahathir’s current Home Minister – Muhyiddin Yassin – who was then education minister under Najib Razak administration, overturned the Mahathir’s decision. Schools were told to teach both subjects only in Malay language and vernacular languages, turning back the clock. Muhyiddin’s decision in 2009 for the implementation to take effect in 2012 was based on political reason.

Mahathir Mohamad with Muhyiddin Yassin

In 2015, Mahathir raised his displeasure over Muhyiddin’s move in mixing education with politics. He said – “Other subjects can be taught in Bahasa Malaysia but Science and Maths are different subjects because the pace of change and new findings happen almost every day.” Mahathir also said he had received complaints that the quality of local graduates had fallen since the 2012’s reversal.


Fast forward to April this year, in an exclusive New Straits Times report, Mahathir Mohamad, who has since returned as the prime minister again, had said that the Teaching and Learning Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) has been reintroduced without announcing it. Last month, however, Education Minister Maszlee told the press that schools will not be returning to the PPSMI policy.


Exactly what the heck is happening in the Ministry of Education? Instead of worrying about the colour of students’ shoes, should not Education Minister Maszlee Malik focus on improving the education system, and that includes bringing back the PPSMI policy – arguably the most vital ingredient to upgrade skills, increase incomes and subsequently raise living standards?

Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik - White Shoes Black Shoes

Interestingly, the state of Sarawak has decided 2 months ago (May) to go ahead and introduce the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English to Year One pupils starting next year (2020). State Education, Science and Technological Research Minister Michael Manyin said the programme would involve 1,046 primary schools statewide, except for Chinese-medium schools.


As the first state in Malaysia to teach Mathematics and Science in English for primary one pupils next year, Michael Manyin said the programme was introduced so that children would be more competitive, and confident to speak up and express themselves in English. The Sarawak Education Minister said – “We are not going to make any U-turn.”


It seems the incompetent and indecisive Dr Maszlee is worse than Michael Manyin, a minister in charge of education in the state of Sarawak. Earlier in May, the country’s education minister was condemned for linking matriculation intake quota with Mandarin language requirements for jobs. He took the easy way out by playing the racial card.

Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik - Discussing

Perhaps Mahathir should think again about putting all eggs in a basket. The premier might think Dr Maszlee is the best brain his political party, PPBM (Bersatu), can offer. But it would definitely be a good idea to split the education portfolio into two ministries – creating a new Higher Education Ministry dedicated to overseeing tertiary education, as suggested by Rafidah Aziz recently.


Rafidah, formerly known as the “Iron Lady” under Mahathir administration, said the government should reconsider about having only one Education Ministry. She lectured about the big difference between the needs of primary and secondary education, as compared to tertiary education. The former Minister of International Trade and Industry also mocked the present Education Minister Maszlee.


Speaking at a forum titled “The Current State of Malaysia’s Education System and the Way Forward”, Rafidah mocked Dr Maszlee – “You cannot have the same emphasis on the policy of black shoes, in the same breath having a policy for interacting with ICT and upskilling. Just black shoes and ICT skills, two different things.”

Rafidah Aziz

“So why not have – as we did before – education at the lower end and tertiary education, so the focus can be equally strong and not just dissipated. To me, maybe this is what the government should try to do. So we will have professionals to deal with the minister in charge of higher education, whereas black shoes – anyone can do it. So you have two ministries,” – said Rafidah Aziz.


Obviously, Rafidah believes his former boss Mahathir needs “a professional” who is absolutely knowledgeable to run the serious business of education, especially the tertiary education. In the same breath, she also suggested that empty vessel like Maszlee can be allowed to play with black shoes just to fill his pastime.


More importantly, Rafidah said education should not be politicised or be viewed as a way to garner votes, as what Maszlee has been doing. She said Malaysia’s education policy should be sustainable where it meets the needs of the present generation without jeopardising the future generations. Unlike certain extremists and racists, the liberal Rafidah has a different view on vernacular schools.

Non Chinese at SJKC Vernacular School

She said the government should allow vernacular schools where Chinese or Tamil language is used to teach to naturally take their course instead of demanding they be shut down. “They didn’t start a Tamil school just for fun or because they are the Indians. No, but they are so far from Kuala Kangsar town. But now there’s infrastructure, so no problem anymore,” – said Rafidah.


Of course, she was referring to how the ethnic Indian had to set up a vernacular school in estate because the national school was located too far away in Kuala Kangsar, her former constituency. As infrastructure improves, they slowly shifted to schools in towns instead of estate-based SJKT vernacular schools.


As a former Member of Parliament for the Kuala Kangsar constituency from 1982 to 2013, Rafidah suggested that people who whined, moaned and bitched about closing down Chinese vernacular schools should instead think about adopting the best aspects in other schools into national schools. She pointed out that even some Malay parents send their children to Chinese schools.

Student of SJKC Sam Yoke Sungei Besi - Kuala Lumpur

She lectured critics of Chinese vernacular schools – “Why not incorporate the best of what’s learnt in Chinese schools, the way they teach and take the best of everything and incorporate it so everybody says this national school is not bad. Even Malays nowadays are not sending their children to national schools.” More than 80,000 Malay students are studying in Chinese schools in the country.


“I got friends of friends whose children are in Chinese schools because they said too much religion, and ‘I want them to learn Maths’. It’s their choice, nobody can scold them. So if you don’t politicise it, people will see clearly and eventually there will be integration. No need to shut out loud ‘close vernacular schools’.” – argued Rafidah.


If the performance of Maszlee is any indicator, the current education system will only get worse. Rafidah might not have the experience as an education minister, but she had lectured in University Malaya in the past. She is perhaps one of the most capable ministers served under Mahathir who still talks sense. Mahathir should appoint her as the first woman Higher Education Minister, if not the Education Minister.

Rafidah Aziz - Honorary Doctor of Philosophy PhD


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Unfortunately, education in Malaysia isn’t aimed at educating the masses and equipping them with lifelong skills. Instead it is to make/keep them docile and stupid so they can be easily manipulated politically.

Hence the dozens of hours of religious studies and the useless rules and regulations regarding colour of shoes, colour of pens, nametags and uniforms and so on.

Besides, Malaysia doesn’t need to focus on tertiary education if the basics aren’t in place. It doesn’t need more universities, it needs better primary and secondary schools!

But as you know, nothing will be done if the majority doesn’t ask for it.

I fear that Malaysia’s slide towards irrelevance and oblivion is already irreversible =(

English we must learn. The Chinese language, Mandarin, is crucial too as it has gained prominence internationally. With foresight, Tamil in the near future will be equally important. India will soon have a population larger than China. Their economy will take off when they are able to enlarge the pool of middle income earners.

Malaysia is indeed lucky to be blessed with its multi racial population. Imagine a workforce that is fluent in Bahasa, Tamil, English and Chinese (BTEC). It can only be ‘advantage Malaysia’.

On a personal level, I would feel inferior communicating with someone who understands my language but I can’t understand theirs.

The Malaysian politicians have much to learn. Perhaps, an able Leader will rise and put on a right education path. For now, keep on slumbering you Ministers while the sound minded have to tend for themselves finding the best education for their children. Sigh for those unfortunate ones

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