Let's quickly recap the key events of the past 2 months. Soon after releasing the "good" news that the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) will soon be "reformed" and this blogger giving a generally favourable account of the Minister, Malaysiakini broke the news that a controversial ethnic relations guidebook has been issued and utilised in some of the local public universities. The controversy was pursued doggedly by parties from both sides of the fence in Parliament, and for the first time since his appoinment, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed (Tok Pa) floundered badly in attempting to defend the indefensible.
Before the incident was even "resolved" by the cabinet ruling that the "guidebook" was to be withdrawn, the mob mentality of "pro-estabilishment" student leaders at Universiti Putra Malaysia created another crisis for the Minister to deal with.
The way I look at it, and if my judgement of Tok Pa is correct, then he must be seething mad. He is seething mad not because of the controversy raised by the various parties, be it Malaysiakini or the opposing parlimentarians, but in all probability, with his own underlings at the Ministry and those at the relevant universities. My argument is that Tok Pa got unnecessarily into the hot soup in the first place because of the incompetent staff ingrained with the "Yes, Minister" culture as well as university administrators who are adept with the art of flattery.
I remember two elections back, when our current Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak nearly lost his parliamentary seat in Pekan, Pahang (which was won in the end by a marginal 250-votes or so, and with alleged critical assistance from last minute diversion of postal votes), he gave an earful to his campaigners who were only adept at whispering sweet nothings in his ear. These underlings were obviously so imbued with the "Yes, Minister" culture, that none wanted to be the harbringer of bad news, i.e., the "real" situation on the ground to him.
Similarly, Tok Pa would have discovered first hand, the perils of placing such trust in his subordinates. The following are some incidents supporting my overall hypothesis:
- The university authorities, in their ill-fated attempts to play down the severity of the ethnic relations "textbook" fiasco, attempted to spin the story that the document wasn't really a "textbook", but only a teaching reference guide for the lecturers. In addition, it was spun that the guide has yet to be finalised, hence any attempt to judge the contents of the document was premature.
Unfortunately, the speed at which technology works today is such that this "excuse" which was put forth by Tok Pa was quickly invalidated when it was immediately shown that the "guidebook" was actually being sold to university students for RM9 a copy, or RM6 for a phostated copy!
- The higher education ministry officials in their clumsy attempts to justify the credibility of the "ethnic relations" project, presented to the Minister the well-regarded names of the academics who were involved in the project.
Hence, Tok Pa proudly listed Prof Dr Johan Saravanamuthu Abdullah from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) as leading a team of experts including Dr. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin (UKM), Prof Dr Azizan Baharuddin (UM), Prof Dr Jayum Jawan (UPM), Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr. Khoo Kay Kim (UM), Prof Dr. Abdul Latif Samian (UKM) and Prof Madya Musa Ahmad (UiTM) being involved in drafting the module.
Once again, the Minister received a slap on the face when Prof Johan and Prof Khoo denied their involvement while Prof Azizan clarified that Prof Musa and her were actually involved in another subject altogether.
Following the public media revelations by the respective academics, Tok Pa announced that a new committee to be chaired by Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin. He was to be assisted by Prof Dr Abdul Latif Samian (UKM), Assoc Prof Dr Siti Aishah Ali and Baterah Alias (both from UiTM) However, Dr Shamsul claimed that "the official syllabus for the course assigns no blame for past ethnic conflicts, whether the 1969 May 13 race riots, the 2001 Kampung Medan clashes and made no mention of the 1999 Suqiu electoral appeals."
And that set the background to a 3rd U-turn in 4 days whereby it was announced that the new committee will be "chaired by higher educational institutions management department director-general Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said, and not Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin from UKM".
The bungling mess can only be attributed to the incompetent civil servants working at the Ministry of Higher Education. I really don't envy Tok Pa in this case.
- With regards to the UPM gangsters episode, it took some time before the Minister actually responded, and even then the university authorities tried to paint it as some sort of "misunderstanding" and even staged a hand-shaking ceremony at a press conference.
The farce was easily and quickly exposed and Tok Pa, who had initially "delegated" the responsibility to Prof Dr Nik Mustapha R. Abdullah, the university's vice-chancellor, then "forced" the set up of an official inquiry panel to investigate the incident.
This however, does not absolve the Minister from blame in the above events. He could have shown greater moral leadership and play a greater role in sieving the truths from the half-truths presented to him. And he would of course, have to take ministerial responsibility for whatever incompetence of the subjects at his ministry.
Hopefully as a result of the above incidents, Tok Pa will take the necessary actions to cleanse his ministry and the universities of the "Yes, Minister" culture which is so detrimental to taking the country's higher education system to a higher level.
Despite the fiasco over the handling of the above incidents, we are generally still quitely hopeful that we are able to see more positive changes in our higher education system led by the current Minister of Higher Education.
Before the ethnic relations episode got all blown out, at the Experiences 2006 press conference, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Ong Tee Keat had stated himself that the current team pays attention to discussions and statements made on the Internet, when replying to a question from a journalist. And to be fair the Minister himself took certain actions when the Parliamentary Opposition leader raised several issues on his blog. Unfortunately, in this case, the action to be taken was too slow and possibly too little too late, and hence the uproar.
Parties close to the Ministry are convinced that the current regime at the Ministry of Higher Education is extremely open to views from the public and the industry and indeed trying to improve our current higher education system for the better. The changes may not be immediate but they appear confident that the Ministry will in some way begin to do things for the better as we continue to engage them.
More reasons to keep blogging then. :)