Fake and exaggerated qualifications taint government

Allegations that politicians misrepresented their qualifications or have what appear to be fake or questionable degrees is tainting Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which came to power on an anti-corruption agenda.

Several politicians are accused of ‘misleading voters’ during elections last year that unexpectedly brought the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition to power.

Deputy Foreign Minister Marzuki Yahya's academic credentials were the first to be called into question in recent weeks after he claimed he had a University of Cambridge degree and it was listed for a while on his Wikipedia biography. But after a police report was lodged by an activist, he admitted his degree was not from the premier British university but from the unaccredited Cambridge International University in the United States, which some have claimed is a degree mill.

Local media noted that the university website claimed the university had existed since 1990 but only had 12 faculty members and 13 adjunct faculty listed. “A Google search on the names of each faculty and adjunct faculty member turned up nothing, neither a LinkedIn profile nor research papers published under them,” according to Malaysia’s Star newspaper, which added that it used photos from Eastern European dating sites for its faculty photos, with the watermarks still intact.

Marzuki is secretary-general of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), the party led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the 93-year-old prime minister who also heads the ruling coalition. Marzuki has come under pressure to quit, but so far his party has not taken any action against him.

The Malaysian Academic Movement, GERAK, has urged Mahathir to remove him as deputy foreign minister as well as others who misrepresented their academic qualifications. GERAK said the controversy could hurt the ruling coalition’s credibility after it unexpectedly captured power in last May’s general election.

In a statement last week, GERAK said: “The Pakatan Harapan coalition must prove its commitment to integrity and good governance. Why did Marzuki create assumptions that he was a Cambridge University graduate? This PPBM leader only clarified that he graduated from Cambridge International University after being pressed from all sides.”

Politicians face scrutiny

The Marzuki debacle was quickly followed this month by a handful of political leaders, including a few cabinet ministers, being forced to defend their academic qualifications after being faced with uncomfortable scrutiny about their authenticity.

Some were quick to put the record straight. Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin said in early February that she had never claimed to be a graduate of the National University of Singapore after an infographic by Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama listed her as an alumnus. Zuraida said the agency had not verified the information with her.

Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu denied he had a fake degree. He clarified that he had never completed his studies at Malaysia’s Universiti Teknologi MARA as it had “kicked him out” because of his involvement in the student movement.

Questions were also raised about Osman Sapian, the menteri besar (chief minister) of Johor state. Osman later said he had directed all information about his diploma and degree from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) to be removed from the official website of the Johor government.

“I once studied at Kolej Pertanian Malaya (Malayan Agriculture College) before it was upgraded into UPM, but I never completed my studies,” he was quoted as saying.

Paul Yong Choo Kiong, a member of the Perak state assembly, also came under the spotlight. Yong has an MBA degree from the University of Akamai in Hawaii, which has been listed by the state auditor of Hawaii as an unaccredited degree-awarding institution. But he said he had never touted it during electoral campaigning and was better known as a businessman.

He pointed out that he had paid MYR20,000 (US$5,000) in college fees and attended weekly classes at a local hotel.

Academic fraud

“Putting forward a fake degree is academic fraud which, like any other fraudulent deed, is a crime that should be vehemently condemned,” says researcher Mustafa K Anuar, a former associate professor in communications and now senior editorial writer for a local media portal.

A genuine degree is the ultimate reward for hard work, commitment and patience, he says. “But a fake degree unfairly trivialises the work of people who cherish and appreciate the value of knowledge, intellectual honesty and integrity. Buying a fake degree only cheapens oneself.”

Political science lecturer Azmil Tayeb, who is involved in the Malaysian Academic Movement GERAK, said the demand for fake degrees is driven by the social expectations that regard a university education as a sign of success and intelligence.

“People with only vocational and non-university education should not be stigmatised and looked down upon,” he says. “Society must assure people they can still be successful in life without a university education as long as their hearts are in the right place.”

Even so, he says, the Malaysian government must come up with a list that contains the names of all known degree mills, so that employers or the public can check the qualifications of public figures in particular.