PUTRAJAYA - Malaysia's education minister Maszlee Malik on Thursday (Jan 2) resigned from his position, marking the first cull Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is making in his Cabinet after months of speculation of a reshuffle.
Dr Maszlee, 45, a former university professor and first-term MP, had entered politics months before the May 2018 general election, and bore the most criticisms amongst the Cabinet ministers since taking up the post 20 months ago.
His stumbles as education minister often made headlines and became memes as the public ridiculed the inexperienced minister over statements such as introducing black shoes for students. There was also an online petition started last year with almost 160,000 signatures calling for Dr Maszlee's replacement.
"With a heavy heart, under the advice of the prime minister, I, Maszlee Malik return my position as education minister to the PM effective Jan 3, 2020," he said at his press conference. Earlier he had listed his "achievements" as education minister.
Asked why he was resigning despite the notable achievements, he told reporters: "I believe whatever decision that has been made, that has been advised to me by the prime minister, is in the best interest of the country".
He listed the ministry as being transparent under his leadership, having been the first to publish its report card, establishing schools for the poor, and reducing teachers burden whilst improving teaching quality as among his accomplishments.
Dr Maszlee said he remains loyal to his party and the Pakatan Harapan government. Dr Maszlee is an MP for Simpang Renggam in Johor for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia that is led by Tun Mahathir.
In a brief statement, Dr Mahathir said that a "replacement will be decided and announced soon".
The education ministry is one of the largest portfolios in cabinet, spanning from pre-school education all the way to universities.
Acknowledging his shortcomings, Dr Maszlee said: "I have been seen as causing many crises to the leadership especially issues involving Jawi, school internet and free breakfast".
The minister was often slammed by Malaysians for his poor handling of delicate issues including the now-taboo topic of teaching Jawi script in Chinese and Tamil schools.
His well-intentioned move of introducing free breakfast to all primary school students was also shot down for wasting government funds that most felt would be best served improving school infrastructure.
A move to provide free internet in 10,000 schools also drew scrutiny over the way the tender and negotiations were done.
Despite being forced to resign from his position, Dr Maszlee said he has no hard feelings towards Dr Mahathir, whom he lavishly sang praises of.
"I have done my best in my role and I thank him for the brief but meaningful opportunity to contribute to the country," Dr Maszlee said.
Calling Dr Mahathir a statesman, the minister did not reveal any plans for his future.
"I am always here to serve the country in whatever position I am in".
It is unclear if there would be more ministerial culls in coming weeks. Speculation is rife that ministers and deputy ministers seen to have underperformed would get the axe, as Dr Mahathir seeks to strengthen his Cabinet after one-and-a-half years in power.
Malaysia will play host in November (2020) to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, with Dr Mahathir, 94, saying he intends to hand over the prime ministership only after APEC.
Surprisingly, a petition on change.org on Thursday asking for Dr Mahathir to reinstate Mr Maszlee quickly garnered more than 142,000 signatures.