Malaysia's Education Minister Maszlee Malik resigned yesterday, marking the first Cabinet change that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is making, after months of speculation over a reshuffle.
A former university professor, Dr Maszlee entered politics just months before the May 2018 general election, and was the most-criticised minister since the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won federal power some 20 months ago.
His stumbles as education chief often made headlines and became memes as the public ridiculed the inexperienced minister over moves such as the introduction of black shoes for students. There was also an online petition last year, which garnered almost 160,000 signatures, calling for Dr Maszlee to be replaced.
"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 these achievements, the first-time MP 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 said the ministry was transparent under his leadership, having been the first to publish its report card. Among the accomplishments he listed were establishing schools for the poor and reducing teachers' burden while improving teaching quality.
Dr Maszlee said he remains loyal to his party and the PH government. The 45-year-old is an MP for Simpang Renggam in Johor for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, led by Tun Dr Mahathir.
In a brief statement, Dr Mahathir said a "replacement will be decided and announced soon".
The Education Ministry is one of the largest portfolios in the Cabinet, spanning pre-schools all the way to universities.
Acknowledging his shortcomings as minister, Dr Maszlee said: "I have been seen as causing many crises for the leadership, especially issues involving Jawi, school Internet and free breakfast."
As education minister, he was often criticised by Malaysians for his poor handling of delicate issues, including the controversial decision to teach Jawi, or Arabic script, in Chinese and Tamil schools.
His well-intentioned move to offer free breakfast to all primary school pupils was also shot down as a waste of government funds. Critics had said the money would be better spent on improving school infrastructure.
A move to provide free Internet services in 10,000 schools also drew scrutiny over the way the tender and negotiations were done.
Despite being forced to resign, Dr Maszlee said he has no hard feelings against Dr Mahathir, calling the Prime Minister a statesman.
"I have done my best in my role and I thank him for the brief but meaningful opportunity to contribute to the country," he said.
Dr Maszlee did not reveal any plans for his future, only saying: "I am always here to serve the country in whatever position."
It is unclear if there would be more ministerial changes in the coming weeks.
Speculation is rife that ministers and deputy ministers seen to have underperformed would be getting the chop, as Dr Mahathir seeks to strengthen his Cabinet after 11/2 years in power.
His government is grappling with a wide range of issues including complaints about the high cost of living, a slower economy and deflated support for the PH administration.
In a surprise development, a petition on change.org yesterday asking Dr Mahathir to reinstate Mr Maszlee quickly garnered the targeted 145,000 signatures.