Mohammad Baligh Ur Rehman is serving as the 39th governor of Punjab since May 2022. Previously, he served as the minister of state for federal education and of interior and narcotics control from 2013 to 2017. He had been a member of the National Assembly from 2008 to May 2018. Following the election of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as prime minister in August 2017, he was inducted into the federal cabinet of Abbasi and was elevated to the federal minister of education and training. His late father Aqeel Ur Rehman also represented the National Assembly from Bahawalpur from 1997 to 1999. The Horizon team sat down with him to learn about his career and achievements.
Can you please tell us a little about your childhood and education? What were your influences?
I was born in the year 1970 in Bahawalpur, the only child of my parents. I received my primary education from nursery to class five from Dominican Convent School Bahawalpur. I have always felt that the mottos of my educational institutions have had a substantial impact on my life. The preliminary school’s motto was ‘Truth,’ something that I have held dear my whole life. I always encourage students and faculty to live by truth in all spheres of life whenever the opportunity presents itself. After getting my primary education, I continued my education at Sadiq Public School Bahawalpur and completed my O Levels, whilst securing a gold medal. This institution’s motto also stayed with me – ‘Do the right, Fear no man’ – something that guided me in making my decisions according to my conscience discarding others’ dubious dictates. My educational efforts eventually led me to study electrical engineering at an Ivy League university, the University of Pennsylvania. I never strived for posts or positions yet I found myself entrusted with them on others’ nominations. I became president of the Pakistan Society at my University after my fellow students withdrew their nomination papers and proposed my name even after I told them I was not interested in that position. Later, I became vice president of the Muslim Student Association in a similar manner.
Moving on to your career, what prompted you to return to your hometown after graduating from a top university in the world?
After graduating, I returned home and started looking after family businesses which were mostly based in Bahawalpur and Lahore, enabling me to stay close to my parents as I was their only child. I also began to assist my late father (may Allah shower on him divine mercy and grace) who was a follower of Mian Nawaz Sharif from the beginning. He represented our area as a member of the National Assembly (MNA) from 1997 to 1999. Mian Nawaz Sharif made him chairman of the Divisional Service Committee and gave him other responsibilities. They had a relationship of mutual respect. I assisted my father in his political career but I never really wanted to join politics myself.
How did you then enter politics?
I contested my first election in the year 2002 for a National Assembly seat of our local constituency in Bahawalpur following my father’s wishes. I went on to contest from the same constituency again in the years 2008, 2013, and 2018, succeeding twice. Winning or losing is part of the process and I welcomed my opponents who won against me. Unfortunately, both the losses in 2002 and 2018 were pre-planned. There were some special circumstances in our constituency owing to which I lost those elections. By 2008, I had convinced my father that I can better serve the public some other way than through politics but some friends and relatives thought otherwise. They compelled me to announce my candidacy in the 2008 elections. I have been proactively engaged in electoral politics since then.
Did you find it challenging or easy?
After becoming a first-time MNA in the year 2008, I was designated as political assistant to then Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Those five years under Shehbaz sahib were, without a doubt, the most challenging and hectic years of my career, demanding constant travel between Bahawalpur, Islamabad, and Lahore. But it was also rewarding to work under an administrative wizard, like Shehbaz sahib. As political assistant to the chief minister, I had the opportunity to serve as a founding director for the board that helped design the Punjab Skill Development Fund, an initiative of Shehbaz Sharif. By the grace of God, our hard work paid off when it was quoted as an example in places like Harvard and London, and brought in billions of rupees in funding from UK’s Department for International Development Fund.
You later became minister of state for education. How did that happen?
Upon winning the election a second time in 2013, I requested to not be given any portfolio position as I wished to focus more on my constituency and family after losing my father in 2011. However, despite my lobbying and repeated requests, I was appointed minister of state for federal education and professional training by Mian Nawaz Sharif. I couldn’t say no to my leader. I was given the additional responsibility of the minister of state for interior and narcotics control to assist then Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. He delegated to me the parliamentary business of these divisions. I had to be there in all sessions of Parliament as not a day went by without discussing interior business. I never aspired to these positions.
You have done extensive work in the education sector, tell us about some of your achievements.
In the year 2002, I served as president of the board of management for vocational courses at 24 institutes under TEVTA [Technical Education & Vocational Training Authority] in the Lodhran and Bahawalpur districts. We brought in new market-driven courses and hired staff on merit in those districts.
In 2008, I got a chance to serve as a founding director on the board of Shehbaz Sharif’s Punjab Education Endowment Fund (PEEF), on which he himself served as chairman while Dr. Amjad Saqib was the vice chairman. Under PEEF, an endowment was created in which Rs3-5 billion were added annually. It increased to approximately Rs20 billion over five years. It is an accepted practice that endowment should never deviate from the purpose it was initially created for. However, among the many astonishing things the PTI government did, they took out Rs6 billion from the endowment reducing it to Rs13 billion. They also instituted NAB cases against Dr. Amjad Saqib who is well-known for his integrity and excellent work.
When I became minister for federal education in 2013, NAVTTC [National Vocational and Technical Training Commission] was under my ministry, and I can confidently say that its performance during our tenure (2013-2018) was the best since its inception. Its performance, funding, and credibility were also at an all-time high during my tenure, by the grace of God. We proposed and developed technical vocational schools through public-private partnerships in Islamabad, which are still functioning today, although subsequent governments did not scale up this initiative as planned.
Although we have never played the religion card as a political party, it is important to know where we stand. The bill to make the teaching of the Quran reading to Muslim students in all schools compulsory was first introduced and enforced under the PML-N government with complete planning for how it would be enacted in Federal and Provincial jurisdictions. The bill was passed in the National Assembly and the Senate, according to which students of grades 1-5 were to be taught Quran reading as a compulsory subject in all public and private schools, progressing to teaching an easy translation of the Quran from grades 6 to 12. The law was enforced in all public schools in Islamabad and is followed to-date. In 2017-2018, I had the Bill passed and enforced during PML-N’s government in Punjab as a private member’s bill, making the teaching of the Quran compulsory in all schools in the province. When questions were raised about the enforcement of this Law, I ensured its implementation in my hometown Bahawalpur, which has 1,900 schools. One of the first matters I attended to as the Governor was to ensure that all public schools in Punjab followed the Law starting from the new academic session this summer. Punjab’s Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi is also taking interest in it and firmed up the legislation in his tenure as the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly.
It is unfortunate that the PTI government could not manage these initiatives very well. What else makes you feel sad about their performance?
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has funding of two types – recurring and developing grants. Since HEC was established in 2002, there has been a linear growth curve in its funding over the years. However, the curve was at its apex during the PML-N tenure. We increased the funding from Rs34 billion to Rs48 billion in the first year alone. I remember it was the end of the year 2018 when then Finance Minister Ishaq Dar managed to save Rs2 billion from another project and suggested it should be utilized for education, so we gave it to the HEC. Some members of the HEC were surprised. This was the first time in the HEC and University Grants Commission’s history that budgetary releases went beyond budgetary allocation. The HEC budget continued to increase during the PML-N tenure – going from Rs48 billion in the first year to Rs68 billion, Rs86 billion, Rs100 billion, and finally Rs120 billion in 2018. The PTI, which used to claim countries were made by education and not roads, failed both in providing better education and developing infrastructure. Within the first year of the PTI government, the HEC’s funding was cut down by 50 per cent and a meagre budget of Rs60 billion was maintained for all four years of its woeful tenure.
Likewise, PML-N always created separate funds to encourage further development in different sectors, for example, there was a separate fund to promote industry and academia linkages. In 2013, Nawaz Sharif introduced the PM’s Fee Reimbursement Scheme for students from less developed districts of Balochistan, South Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh wishing to pursue Master/MPhil/PhD degrees. As soon as the scheme was introduced, enrollment in Master, MPhil and PhD jumped up by 40 per cent in Balochistan, and by 35 per cent in South Punjab, proving that lack of funding prohibited so many marginalised sections of society from getting higher education. The PTI, however, discontinued the program after coming into power, leaving enrolled students protesting on the streets. Later on, however, they relented and allowed already enrolled students to complete their education under the scheme but refused to extend it for the future.
The laptop scheme introduced by PML-N on the federal level and Punjab led to Pakistan shooting to one of the top five countries in e-lancing internationally. That scheme was closed too.
Recently, former Prime Minister Imran Khan turned an address to students of Government College University in Lahore into a public rally and criticized public institutions. He made a similar speech at Sargodha University later. As governor and chancellor of public sector universities, how do you view this?
As chancellor, I conveyed my displeasure over this incident. I clearly stated that universities should have space for political debate. However, using the name of education and skill development to make below-the-belt comments and pollute students’ minds to aid deliberately planned campaigns is unacceptable. Educated people of Pakistan as well as old Ravians expressed their reservations against this. The sole purpose of that gathering was to incite and spark trouble and manipulate the youth, something that will not be tolerated.
Tell us about the initiatives you have taken as governor.
As governor, I brought the heads of various universities together and formed seven consortiums, all of which are especially close to my heart. In June, before the floods, I decided to devote my efforts to tackling climate change, the need for which has grown exponentially in the aftermath of the floods. One of the consortiums is dedicated to climate change that will assess its impact on agriculture and livelihoods and how to mitigate it. The idea is to bring together academic scholars in these areas under these consortiums. Another thing that is important for me is the character-building of students. While legislating laws in Parliament, I always tried to keep the University of Pennsylvania’s motto ‘Laws without morals are useless’ in my mind and tried to ensure that any law that I endorsed had morality rooted at its core. Therefore, character-building is close to my heart. Students should be taught professional skills but should know the values of truth, integrity, humility, grace, compassion, and gratitude. We need to find a way to inculcate these values in the tertiary education system. Other consortiums include women empowerment and development, use of technology in education and promotion of STEM education, drugs and narcotics control in educational institutions, entrepreneurship, and finally governance and fiscal management of our universities.
Sir, what is your position regarding the propaganda against trans persons and the campaign against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2O18 by Jamaat-e-Islami? We have seen a rise in hate crimes against transgender persons in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and now this wave is coming to Punjab.
This is the direct result of the last four years of bad governance which is affecting all areas of life. Intolerance is rising resulting in violence and terrorism. Violence against transgender persons is part of the larger picture. It is annihilating the decency in the culture of debate on such legislative measures.
All laws are man-made and all hold potential for improvement. If new deliberations and concerns are coming to light, they will undoubtedly be handled while keeping the collective wisdom in sight. Rest assured that the PML-N has always worked and strived for the betterment of all factions in society, particularly minorities and will continue to do so.
Coming to your personal life, what’s your favourite food?
My favourite dish is ‘khushk gosht,’ which is sun-dried beef or mutton prepared especially in our area. I like to eat all kinds of food but I am especially fond of seafood. I could be dubbed a foodie but I enjoy all kinds of food in moderation.
What do you do for leisure and fitness?
I do my best to play tennis daily and try to incorporate exercise, swimming, and jogging into my routine, although it becomes difficult with the limited time I have due to work engagements. I have never been particularly fond of cricket but I do take great joy in racket sports, especially table tennis and badminton. I like to spend my time reading, however, due to previously mentioned time constraints I have taken to collecting books now and browsing through them whenever I get some time. I do not listen to music at all. Though I did listen to ghazals at a point I no longer have the time or habit of doing so. I have never liked anything that I could potentially grow dependent on, which is why I have always stayed away from smoking and stopped listening to music.
How do you balance work with family?
Alhamdulillah, I have always been a very family-oriented person. Three of my sons and one of my daughters moved in with me when the job required me to relocate to Lahore. One of my daughters is currently a medical student and the other is now happily married after graduating from LUMS. I, unfortunately, lost my wife and eldest son who was then 13 in a tragic road accident in 2019, but Alhamdulillah I have now married again and happily living together with my children.