IT probably occurred to most of us before – if Maszlee Malik vacated the education minister’s post, who will take over from him, especially considering the dearth of qualified people? For the time being, it is the prime minister but will there be a change?

And Maszlee, following a blaze of continuing criticism when it looked like almost everyone was after him to step down (including this writer) did resign. On Jan 2, after he was advised by interim prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to do so.

Maszlee claimed that he had done his job well and introduced many changes but he was known more for high-profile things such as mandating black shoes in schools, which was a major move because millions of schoolchildren had to get rid of their white ones, a colossal waste of money for parents. But perhaps opportunities for those who had the heads up.

Not just that; he invited controversy into his courtyard when he mandated khat as part of the Bahasa Melayu curriculum and then allowed Muslim missionaries into schools who will only preach to the converted. Both raised derisive comments about his true intentions in introducing this at a time when education was in shambles and crying out for reform.

And then there was the alleged leaked letter by Mahathir to Maszlee which said that the latter did not follow cabinet instructions. The Malaysian Insight which claimed to have seen the letter said that Maszlee failed to follow the cabinet’s directive on the teaching of Jawi in schools, free internet service for schools and the free breakfast programme for pupils. According to the article, Mahathir ended the letter with the words: “It is now time for Yang Berhormat (Maszlee) to withdraw from the cabinet.”

And then speculations mounted. Who would be the next education minister? That was partially answered when it was announced that it was decided that Mahathir would be interim education minister at a cabinet meeting on Jan 8.

But of course, as with the interim prime minister, no date was specified. The interim prime minister’s office simply announced that he will hold the interim education minister’s position until a new education minister is appointed, in an event highly reminiscent of the appointment of Mahathir himself as PM.

That would mean that the word “interim” can be misinterpreted to mean “indefinite” just because no specific date has been mentioned by which the appointment has to be made and for Mahathir to step down. By now we all know that can take some time considering the interim PM has been around for some 20 months now.

But does Mahathir have something else up his sleeve or some person in mind to take over the post of education minister in time? As with many things about Mahathir, we have to enter the realm of the speculative because we don’t really know and can at best lay out the possibilities.

First things first. Can Mahathir be both an effective PM and an effective education minister? Certainly not. As we all know by now he has his hands, heart and mind too full right now to be able to do that and is really struggling to be a good PM. Part of the reason for that is he picked a lot of lousy ministers besides Maszlee for education.

So going by reason and rationale Mahathir should really pick someone else, someone good, capable, knows what education is all about, has clear ideas of what to do, and is prepared to change tack as and when necessary. Now, where is he going to get someone like that in Bersatu? No, there’s no one there.

Can we expect him to do the right thing and find someone else out of Bersatu to head this most important of ministerial portfolios? No, because he seldom decides rationally but always politically. What is politically good for him is to either keep the education minister portfolio to himself or to bring in someone he trusts.

According to a Jan 11 Bernama report, Mahathir said in Langkawi that he will cease being the interim education minister once a suitable person is found to take over the portfolio.

“Once someone is picked to take over (the education minister’s post), I will relinquish it. It’s only temporary,” he said.

Here’s the clincher: Asked whether the new minister would be a Member of Parliament from PPBM (Bersatu), Mahathir said that is the usual practice.

Let’s take Mahathir at his word, which is not the way you should take it. Anyway, that means the new education minister will have to be an MP from Bersatu – and we have to rule out Maszlee obviously.

If the usual practice is followed, then there is only one Bersatu MP left – all the other Bersatu MPs save for Maszlee are either ministers or deputy ministers. That one is Mahathir’s son, Datuk Seri Mukhriz, currently menteri besar of Kedah. Mukhriz has denied that he is eying the post but ultimately it is Mahathir who will decide.

We just now laid down, rationally, some qualities for an education minister – someone good, capable, knows what education is all about, has clear ideas of what to do, and is prepared to change tack as and when necessary. Rationally that rules out both father and son but it will be one or the other.

Mukhriz’s appointment, if it comes, will raise a tremendous storm among the main coalition parties within Pakatan Harapan – PKR and DAP – and within the general populace, all of whom cannot but help see it as a blatant and crude attempt to create a Mahathir ruling dynasty.

So, reasonably speaking, one should expect that Mahathir will serve out his time as both interim prime minister and interim education minister. The question is how long he will be both.

P Gunasegaram, editor-in-chief of Focus Malaysia, marvels at the way in which politicians can twist the meaning of words – interim and indefinite are not synonymous

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