PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has, in a surprising turn of events, emerged as a candidate to fill the vacant Education Minister's post.
A member of the supreme council of his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) said the party's leadership was made to understand that their chairman Tun Mahathir may take over the post in an acting capacity before handing it later to his permanent choice.
A former Umno Cabinet minister, who has joined PPBM, Mr Mustapa Mohamed, was earlier speculated to be the front runner for the post vacated by Mr Maszlee Malik.
Mr Maszlee, 45, last week stepped down from the post, 20 months after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won power in the May 2018 general election.
The Prime Minister, who has long envisaged meaningful reform in the country's education system, held a special meeting with the management-level staff of the Education Ministry last Friday (Jan 3), a day after Dr Maszlee stepped down.
Details of the meeting remained unclear, but political insiders said he would have used the occasion to stress the urgent need for educational reforms to prepare the future workforce for the new technological age or the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Many had expected the reshuffle to be made last Thursday but instead the spotlight was on Mr Maszlee, a former academic, who announced his resignation in a long, rambling speech before finally driving off in a black Perodua Myvi.
Political insiders saw Mr Maszlee's parting words of "handing back the post" to the Prime Minister, whom he referred to as "ayahanda" (father), as a hint of things to come.
The much-overdue Cabinet reshuffle is expected to be announced any day after the weekly Cabinet meeting on Wednesday (Jan 8).
Speculation that the education ministry could again be split into the Higher Education and Education ministries has been dismissed as unlikely.
The PPBM supreme council member who spoke to The Star also said that should Dr Mahathir decide to take on the job, it would be to put in place some bold ideas for reform and to get civil servants to come on board, because the best of policies will not be successful without the cooperation and support of the civil service.
"The Education Ministry has always been a messy job, with so many issues that few politicians can solve. If anyone can do it, it is Dr Mahathir," said the supreme council member.
According to the person, Datuk Seri Mustapa, 69, is still in the running despite some apprehension within PPBM and among PH partners due to his defection from Umno after the coalition won power.
"From what we are hearing, even if Dr Mahathir becomes the acting Education Minister, it will only be until after our party AGM (annual general meeting) and election in April. After that he can hand over the reins to someone permanent," said the supreme council member.
Party elections are always sensitive and it might be easier for Dr Mahathir, 94, to rope in Mr Mustapa after the polls are done with.
It was learnt that there have been a total of "seven drafts" at the level of the PH presidential council regarding the Cabinet reshuffle.
It seems that there is still some power play going on regarding the reshuffle.
On Saturday (Jan 4), Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, when asked about the reshuffle, declined to comment, saying that "it is best for us to discuss the matter in Pakatan Harapan".
Two hours later, PPBM information chief Radzi Jidin, who was then in Mecca, shot out a press statement saying it was the "sole prerogative" of the Prime Minister to make a ministerial appointment and there was no need to discuss it in any specific meeting.
Mr Radzi cited Article 43(2) of the Federal Constitution which states that ministers are appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Mr Radzi, who is also Deputy Economic Affairs Minister, said there was no need for the four-party PH to meet on the Education Ministry appointment as it should rightfully be filled by PPBM.