Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s continuing effort to stay in power has resulted in the appointment of 35-odd politicians and ex-politicians to the boards of directors of the country’s 20 public universities, a position that carries basic financial reward and allowances but plenty of prestige.

It is just one more method of rewarding loyalty. Under Muhyiddin (above), Malaysia, a middling country of only 32.5 million people, now has the world’s biggest cabinet. Scores of politicians have been appointed to the boards of government linked companies and agencies.

Most of the public university positions have been given to middle to lower-echelon United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) politicians and party organizers, in the wake of Muhyiddin’s takeover of the prime ministership in February 2020.

Over the past two decades, the majority of university board positions have traditionally gone to government-sympathetic business people, well-known retired academics, retired civil servants, ex-vice chancellors, and ex-ministers.

The business appointees were expected to provide a link to industry. Retired academics provided knowledge about the higher education sector, and retired politicians and civil servants were seen as giving an aura of prestige.

Maszlee Malik, the former minister for education under the Pakatan Harapan government ousted by Muhyiddin’s forces, started the politicization of positions on the university boards by appointing members or sympathizers of the Pertubuhan IKRAM movement, which is committed to promoting the interests of Islam through all aspects of society. Maszlee appointed himself the president of the International Islamic University in September 2018, resigning in 2019 after strong protests by students.  

Now, under the Muhyiddin administration, the practice of making political appointments to university boards has stepped up dramatically, restricted only by the limited number of new positions available, when vacancies occur. According to academics close to the ministry, there is a waiting list of politicians for board vacancies.

The University and University College Act 1971 gives the minster the power to appoint the vice chancellor, top university office bearers, and members of the board.

There is no nomination process or criteria about how board members should be selected and appointed, a sole prerogative of the minister.
Maszlee as minister used his discretion to make appointments without heeding advice from the university management changing past precedent.

Muhyiddin, through his education minister Mohd Radzi Md Jidin, has taken full advantage of what Maszlee started. University board appointments are particularly important with UMNO split in support for Muhyiddin, whose government is regarded universally as surviving only because he managed to persuade the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s king, to decree a state of emergency over Covid-19 and suspend the sitting of parliament.

Most new appointees to university boards are those who can muster support on the ground during elections and carry weight within their own constituency districts. A list of some appointments from UMNO and PAS is listed below:

Ibrahim Shah Abu Shah, UMNO, Chairman Universiti Teknologi Mara Board

Irmohizam Ibrahim, UMNO Selangor, former MP, Universiti Teknologi Mara Board

Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin UMNO Sabah, Former Paper MP, Univeriti Malaya Board

Abdullah Md Zin, UMNO Sabah, ex-Besut MP, Chairman Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin Board

Apli Yusoff, UMNO Terengganu, Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin Board

Md Alwi Che Ahmad, UMNO, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Board

Abdul Rahman Dahlan, UMNO Sabah, former federal minister, Chairman Universiti Malaysia Sabah Board

Kamarlin Ombi, UMNO Sabah, former Sabah state minister, Universiti Malaysia Sabah Board

Jainab Ahmad Ayid, UMNO, former Sabah state minister, Universiti Malaysia Sabah Board

Jailani Johari, UMNO, former deputy minister, Universiti Malaysia Putra Board

Norashekin Yusof, UMNO, Universiti Malaysia Putra Board

Shah Headan Ayoob Hussain Shah, Umno Penang, Universiti Malaysia Putra Board

Khairul Ezwan Harun, UMNO Kedha, Universiti Utara Malaysia Board

Nazira Abdul Rahim, UMNO Kedah, Universiti Utara Malaysia Board

Noraslina Zainal Abidin, UMNO Kedah, Universiti Utara Malaysia Board

Awang Adek Hussin UMNO, Kelantan, Chairman Universiti Sains Malaysia Board

Norliza Abdul Rahim UMNO, Penang, Universiti Sains Malaysia Board

Ahmad Shalimin Ahmad Shaffie, UMNO Perak, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Board

Khairil Nizam Khirudin, PAS Terengganu, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu Board

Shaik Hussein Mydin, UMNO Penang, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu Board

Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman, UMNO, Chairman Universiti Malaysia Pahang Board

Habibah Mohd Yusof, UMNO Selangor, Universiti Malaysia Pahang Board

Boards meets monthly or bimonthly. Most business is concerned with approving plans, proposals and budgets. The board also handles infrastructure projects and relevant tenders around them. As Asia Sentinel has reported in the past, one of these projects, the Putra Medical City developed by Universiti Malaysia Putra, involved a MYR1 billion (US$240.9 million), with corruption suspected at board level. Investigations have been blocked.

The stacking of university boards with people who don’t understand or have experience within higher education won’t do anything to improve the statue of Malaysian public universities, whose reputations have been sinking for decades as politicization and Islamization have taken their toll. The country’s top educational institution, Universiti Malaya, ranks no better than 205th  in Best Universities Global rankings.  There is a long drop to the country’s second-most prestigious institution, Universiti Technologi Malaysia, which ranks 486th. After that, most ranks in below the 600th percentile according to the rankings.

Together with the political appointees as adjunct professors and consultants, public higher education has become a gravy-train for the politically connected rather than academics. The stacking of university boards with politicians runs a major risk of politicizing public universities even further.

University boards don’t appoint students, staff, academicians or alumni representatives to these boards and thus are missing the voices of the system’s most important stakeholders. Instead, the appointees are narrowing board diversity. The public schools are not holding ground with other Asian counterparts, and even starting to be outshone by some of Malaysia’s best private universities.

Political appointees to university boards are an attack on meritocracy within the very institutions that should be positioned as examples, symbolic of the premise that “who you know is more important than what you know.” This entrenches the Malay agenda within university management at a time when universities are supposed to be the vanguard for the next generation of graduates, ready for the challenges of industry 4.0.