Malaysian Education Minister Muzzles Corruption Inquiry

The board chairman of one of Malaysia’s most prestigious state universities was abruptly sacked in July by the country’s Education Minister, Maszlee Malik, only eight months into a three-year appointment, putting an end to the dismissed chairman’s probe into what appeared to be a highly irregular development contract.

The sacked chairman, Syed Razlan Syed Putra Jamalulullail, was removed from the board of Universiti Putra Malaysia. He had been asked by the governance division of the Higher Education Department to investigate irregularities in a RM billion (US$239.4 million) development project called Putra Medical City. Syed Razlan, an enthusiastic backer of the project, had nonetheless placed the university’s registrar and legal adviser on leave and blocked access to their office before he was cashiered.

The former vice chancellor, Mohd Fauzi Ramlan, signed the contract with Freestyle Development Bhd in 2014, allegedly without approval of the university board of directors. The project with Freestyle was for the construction of a hospital, commercial center and hotel on 36 hectares of prime UPM land in Serdang, a part of the Kuala Lumpur conurbation.

The agreement gave the right for Freestyle, which is one of a stable of companies controlled by Vizione Group, whose major shareholder and executive director is Chai Woon Chet, to manage Putra Medical City for a period of 30 years, renting UPM land at RM0.80 per square foot a year. Chet is said to be close to Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng although the contract was signed in 2013, before Lim came to power.

Just before Syed Razlan, a member of the Perlis royal family, was appointed chairman, the UPM disciplinary committee chaired by the Director General of Higher Education took action against Mohd Fauzi Ramlan over a matter unrelated to the Putra Medical City project. Fauzi then lodged a complaint to the Ministry of Education Governance Division and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for alleged mismanagement and corruption by the current top management.

At that point, university staff complained about Syed Razlan’s intervention in the management of UPM. He was abruptly terminated from his position as chairman. He wanted the Ministry of Education to make any final decision on continuation or cancellation, as he didn’t want the current board of directors to take any blame for losses should the project be cancelled.

The decision to sack Syed Razlan was met with protest from UPM Alumni President Raihan Sharif, claiming the minister had been ill-advised. Raihan went on to charge a conspiracy to protect those involved in what he described as misconduct. Terminating Syed Razlan’s appointment in the middle of his internal investigation, Raihan said, appears to confirm the possibility of a coverup.

Three months since Syed Razlan's dismissal, there has been no announcement about the future of Putra Medical City by either the ministry or university authorities. The agreement is still listed as active

Maszlee’s refusal to state the reasons for Syed Razlan’s dismissal, critics say, signals an attitude that ministry actions are beyond public scrutiny. The abrupt dismissal, midway through an internal corruption investigation, has also raised questions over the education minister’s commitment to transparency and the eradication of corruption within the education system and spurred other questions whether he himself is part of a coverup.

The 44-year-old Maszlee, a lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia, joined Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia shortly before the campaign for the 2018 general election began in earnest. He is said to have been picked by Mahathir to reform and modernize Malaysia’s higher education system, which is beset with a long list of problems including an over-emphasis on the Islamization of education, as Asia Sentinel reported on September 9. Maszlee’s Islamic credentials make it uncertain if he has the commitment to the kind of reforms the education system needs.

Syed Razlan was described as disappointed with the minister, who cut his term of office as chairperson without discussing the matter, believing the manner of dismissal created the perception that he himself was involved in wrongdoing.

Syed Razlan himself is a former lecturer at UPM, formerly known as Malaysia’s University of Agriculture, which is recognized as one of the country’s leading research universities. He was considered a possible candidate as federal agriculture minister but lost out. He was later considered a candidate to become the chief minister of the northern state of Perlis but that was blocked by his brother, Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin, the Raja of Perlis and one of Malaysia’s nine sultans, who forbade him to consider the position to avoid controversy. Syed Razlan left politics at the 2013 election to pursue business interests.

The ministry of education is said to have been frustrated with members of royal families holding positions within universities as chancellors. Maszlee’s termination of Syed Razlan’s appointment is regarded by critics as a message that reappointments of royal household members as chancellors may not be automatic, as it has been in the past.

Ghauth Jasmon, founder and president of Multimedia University and former vice chancellor of Universiti Malaya, was appointed to take over the chairmanship after Syed Razlan’s ouster. Ghauth has long been closely connected with top bureaucrats within the ministry including Siti Hamisah Tapsir, the director general of the Higher Education Department and a strong supporter of the conservative Malay apparatchiks within the ministry. Her department had made the request to Syed Razlan to investigate. The Ghauth move strengthens her position somewhat as a close ally.

Last year, Maszlee sacked chairpersons of a number of university boards who were considered political appointees. These universities included UPM, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Universiti Tun Hussein Onn, Universiti Zainal Abidin, and University Sains Malaysia. This didn’t go without criticism from the Joint Councils of Presidents and Honorary Secretaries of the Malaysian Universities Staff Union (GAKUM) at the time, claiming that those sacked were not involved in any political activities.

One of the chairpersons that Maszlee sacked on the basis he was a political appointee, Kamaruddin Hussin was reappointed chairman of the Universiti Malaysia Perlis Board of Directors a few months later by Maszlee, then was abruptly sacked seven months into his three-year appointment. That, critics say, points to questions whether Maszlee is working towards a clearly defined strategy or is making decisions on a whim.

Maszlee promised much more university autonomy, especially with regard to university boards. The backflips in appointments and terminations university boards have raised questions over that goal, however. Politics and gamesmanship by the ministry towards the makeup and composition of these boards comes at a time when there are many serious issues for the boards to contend with.

The Malaysian Auditor General report shows that there is much to be desired in university procurement management, supply management, construction project management, and asset management. There are numerous cases of mismanagement and corruption that haven’t become public knowledge that require attention if the education sector is to be reformed.

Murray Hunter is a Southeast Asia-based development specialist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.