Conflict of interest row over minister’s university role

The appointment of Malaysia’s new education minister as president of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) has sparked controversy among academics and civil society organisations, who say there is a conflict of interest between his role as education minister and heading one of the country’s 20-odd public universities.

More than five dozen civil society groups have endorsed a statement against Maszlee Malik’s appointment as the university’s president for a three-year term, which was first made public on 4 September.

Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, also known as the C4 Center, which also endorsed the statement, said the minister “should be uplifting all universities not just IIUM”.

Gabriel noted that Maszlee’s familiarity with the institution would be an unfair advantage for IIUM. “The appointment also goes against [the new ruling coalition’s] pledge that there would not be any political appointments to head universities. He can easily withdraw,” she added.

Prior to taking up his ministerial position in May, Maszlee was a lecturer at IIUM, a public university with its main campus in Selangor and five other campuses, with a total of more than 30,000 students. It was set up in the 1980s with the backing of several countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Libya, the Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The civil society statement, made public on 12 September, said “our education minister should not head any university to avoid conflict of interests. An education minister who is concurrently the president of IIUM would be caught in a split of loyalty towards the ministry and the university as the two have legitimate institutional interests that are and should not be identical.”

The statement also noted that from the university’s perspective “the IIUM president must be prepared to fight for the best interests of the university or universities in general, which the education ministry may not necessarily agree with”.

“Such a distinction of roles is pertinent for the healthy functioning of both the ministry and universities and a shared leadership in one person is bound to compromise such check-and-balance and undermine the legitimate interests of either if not both parties.”

‘Oxford of Muslim countries’

Maszlee for his part defended his appointment, saying he would not be paid for it. He said his aim was to turn IIUM into the “Oxford of Muslim countries”.

Civil society groups were not impressed. “The argument that the education minister doubling up as IIUM president will save MYR500,000 [US$121,000] annually as Maszlee said he will work without a salary is completely misplaced as the check-and-balance between the education ministry and universities is not an item for cost-cutting,” said their statement.

Academics are also uneasy. The Malaysian Academics Movement, GERAK, said in a 7 September statement it was “puzzled and appalled” by the appointment which “clearly goes against the new government’s purported commitment to free university management from political appointees”.

Maszlee himself terminated the services of chairpersons of the boards of directors of five public universities in July because they were deemed to be political appointees of the previous government. “There should not be any exception to this policy,” GERAK said.

Maszlee’s appointment is a violation of the autonomy that should be an integral part of our universities, said GERAK member Azmil Tayeb, a political science lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

“The university president should be appointed by a deliberative and collective effort of representatives of students, academics and administrative staff,” he said. “The issue of university autonomy is a question of ethics and principle. It should have nothing to do with Maszlee’s wanting to make IIUM into an Islamic Oxford.”

Past political appointments

In the past, both Anwar Ibrahim and former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak also held the IIUM presidency at the same time as being education ministers. Civil society groups said it “reflected the old Malaysia practice that personal linkages ensures development” and stressed this “must not continue in the New Malaysia which the education minister helped to install on 9 May”.

In a watershed general election on 9 May, the new Pakatan Harapan (Hope Alliance) coalition toppled the UMNO-led ruling coalition, which had been at the helm of the country for 61 years, since Malaysia’s independence. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said he will hand over the country’s leadership to Anwar Ibrahim, a former opposition leader who was released from a prison sentence on 16 May. Anwar Ibrahim recently declined an offer made to him by Mahathir to head IIUM.

Under the UMNO government, appointees to top posts in universities appeared to be chosen based on their alignment with the dominant party’s agenda rather than meritocracy as the main criteria. Maszlee has also said he will do away with political appointees to universities.

Some 20 students belonging to Gabungan Pembebasan Akademik IPT (Tertiary Institutions Academic Freedom Group) held a day-long protest against Maszlee’s appointment on 7 September at the ministry of education, unhappy with what they saw as conflict of interest and a violation of university autonomy. As the protest continued into the night, two students were arrested after midnight for alleged trespassing, but were released on bail early in the morning.

One of the arrested was the group’s president, final-year law student Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi, who is about to graduate and is currently doing an internship with the C4 Center. The new government “promised to reinstate university autonomy, according to promise No 50 of their [Pakatan Harapan] manifesto,” he said. “They have also been talking about no political appointments in universities.”

Asheeq noted that Maszlee’s political secretary Mohd Nizam Morad was recently appointed to the board of directors of Universiti Utara Malaysia (Northern University Malaysia).

Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) Vice-Chancellor Ahmad Bashawir Abdul Ghani insisted Nizam was appointed in his capacity as the vice-president of the UUM Alumni Association, and not in his capacity as the minister’s political secretary.

Maszlee met with the disgruntled students’ group on 12 September. Asheeq said Maszlee told them that his appointment to IIUM “came from the prime minister and was consented to by the Sultan of Pahang [state] so he has to go back to the prime minister”. The Sultan of Pahang is the constitutional head of IIUM.

Mahathir has suggested Maszlee’s appointment to IIUM will be reviewed. “This appointment is not carved in stone,” he said in early September. But last week Maszlee reiterated that he would not step down from IIUM.