“Zan! Come to my room! I’ve got a nice view!” Maszlee Malik said to me.
“Alright let’s go!” I replied.
We went up to his room and true enough, it had a beautiful view of the Celebes Sea. We were in Sabah because he was on an official trip to the state to visit several schools there.
I was there to document his visit, not as a journalist but for his official YouTube channel.
I have known Maszlee before he entered politics. We weren’t close buddies but we knew of each others’ work and have communicated every so often.
We both were also very involved in countering and preventing violent extremism work. He had even helped me on a documentary I directed about radicalisation. I had always thought of him as a decent guy.
“I can’t offer you much, but I can offer you fruits and snacks from the hotel room fridge!” he laughed.
I laughed hard at this. He was making a joke referencing a story I once told him about how Umno politicians used to offer me cash for no reason at all many years ago when I used to cover their events as a journalist.
Like I said, I always thought of him as decent.
Over the months of spending time with him as education minister and Simpang Renggam MP, I got to know him a lot better. Two things about him appealed to me.
The first is his open and liberal stand on Islam. This I have known for a long time because he wrote and spoke a lot about the religion.
It was very much similar to my view of religion and I liked it.
The second is his views and thoughts on education.
I’m not going to list down all the things he had achieved while in the ministry. Since yesterday, the media suddenly saw him as a national hero, listing down all the things that they thought were a positive impact on the education system.
This is the same media that, over 20 months, bullied and harassed the man for the slightest of issues.
I am a journalist as well and I can see when things are being sensationalised and actual leads being buried.
The black shoe issue is one example. A small mention that lasted all of 45 seconds in an hour-long speech that contained more significant issues which painted Maszlee as a clown.
He is funny and down to earth but, rest assured, he is not a clown, especially when dealing with the education of the younger generation.
When I was growing up, both my parents told me that examinations were never the end all and be all.
During report card day, they were more interested in finding out from the teacher if I got along well with my classmates or if I were kind, outgoing or had leadership qualities.
I saw Maszlee working hard to incorporate civic education and social consciousness into the school system.
He believed that Malaysians needed to be more holistic in their lives and he wanted to create a love for school. He abolished examinations for lower primary students.
“Zan, our kids need to understand so much more about the world and the differences that exist rather than focus on exam scores. We need to be kind to each other,” Maszlee once told me when we were in his car driving to an official event.
“I agree YB. My father used to tell me the same thing. I think you’re on to something,” I replied.
My daughter is in lower primary school and she is thriving.
She is part of the school’s dance troupe, talking to my wife and me about culture and religion and, yet, still wanting to be a scientist when she grows up.
That’s what I want to see in my children. I see my daughter going to school and enjoying it, and I feel like this is what all children should experience.
Maszlee worked on making education for all, no matter who or where you’re from, even undocumented children.
I had the privilege of observing how he and senior members of the ministry discussed and came to the conclusion to amend the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 to give more freedom and empower students and faculty members.
After the meeting, I sat with him, just the two of us, in his office as he got ready to perform his prayers. As usual, we would breakdown what had just happened and he would record a piece for his YouTube channel.
“You teach in university as well, Zan. Don’t tell me what happened inside that meeting room wasn’t inspiring?” he asked me.
“Of course it was! University students should always take the lead in change or revolution. You and I both know that,” I said.
With all this being said, the one thing that I feel is his biggest problem is that he entered politics not wanting to play politics.
He always told me that he wanted to work as an education minister and was not interested in strategising politically or even to present himself properly to the public to strengthen his position.
I believe that to be a little too naive and, when you hold such an important portfolio, it’s going to hurt you because there will always be people gunning for you.
He thought that if he showed that he could do the work, then people would be happy and satisfied.
Unfortunately, politics just doesn’t work that way in Malaysia.
Politicians, no matter which side, are always ruthless. The media will always be ruthless and, at times, sensational.
The people, if they don’t see the full story, are ruthless and quick to take out their daggers.
But on the bright side, I take Maszlee’s resignation as an example. How often do you see a cabinet minister in Malaysia resign when he realises that the people are not happy with him anymore?
As far as I can remember, Malaysian politicians will hold on to their positions until the very end.
What Maszlee did when he let go of his portfolio was honourable. But it is quite a loss for Malaysia.
There was much he was doing that was on the right track. Well, for me at least. But we shouldn’t talk like the man is dead.
Maszlee is still an MP and, at 3am today, several hours after he had announced his resignation, he texted me saying that he can’t make it to my house tomorrow to see my three-month-old son because he needed to be in Simpang Renggam, his constituency.
It’s great that he keeps on working for the people.
In the meantime, I am extremely worried about who will be taking over as education minister. I hope, for my three children’s sake and all of Malaysians’ sake, that we get someone as decent as how I see Maszlee is.
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