Messing around with Malaysian higher education

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Zaharom Nain notes that as long as the rigid feudal politically and racially-tainted civil structure remains, there is little hope of stemming the rot in higher education.

University students protest against the suspension of Aziz Bari

In Malaysia, politics has been central to many academic matters for a pretty long time, from as far back as 1971 at the very least, when the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) was introduced. The UUCA, like other legislation such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), is an obscene piece of legislation which really has no place in a democracy.

Two recent controversies highlight the extent to which politics has virtually swamped Malaysian academia and the resultant mess that has emerged. First has been the on-off suspension of Professor Abdul Aziz Bari by the International Islamic University (IIU) and the accompanying police investigation. Second was the recent Appeal Court verdict on the UKM4 and the judgment given on Section 15(5)(a) of the Universities and University Colleges Act.

Aziz Bari case: In a pickle

If we were to look at Aziz Bari’s case, in mid-October 2011, this outspoken professor of constitutional law was suspended by his university. Until today, he is apparently still being investigated under the Sedition Act by the police and under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

And all because of an opinion he expressed in the web-based news portal, Malaysiakini, regarding an earlier decree by the Sultan of Selangor over the controversial Jais raid on the Damansara Utama Methodist Church a while back.

Indeed, it has been widely and freely reported that Aziz had described the decree as “unusual” and “inconsistent”, stating that any such royal intervention must abide by the principles of Islam. The man, after all, is an acknowledged authority in his field, an expert in a profession (and country) renowned for its ever-present kangkungs. He writes – and speaks – critically, many say without fear or favour.

His suspension has thus far sparked a signature campaign among concerned academics supporting him and defending academic freedom, student protests, Facebook pages being set up supporting him, and open support from some lawyers and fellow academics from his university and even Universiti Malaya.

But perhaps more telling is that the Deputy Minister of Higher Education himself has come out in support of Aziz, advising the university rector to retract the controversial suspension of the law professor. His comments do seem at odds though with those of his superior, the Minister himself, who is of the silly opinion that Aziz should resign his post for being critical of authority and, evidently, BN policies.

Be that as it may, the actions against Aziz seem to indicate that the university authorities appear to have acted rather hastily and now find themselves in a bit of a pickle, reportedly making wildly contradictory statements.

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All of which not reflecting very nicely on the university, of course.

While all this was going on, the instantaneous action of the students and the mobilisation of support by Malaysia’s civil society evidently indicate a unified belief in taking a principled stand.

People, mainly Malaysians, some having not read any of his writings or comments, have freely come out in support of a professional – and human being – who they believe has been wronged.

It is this development that is refreshing and encouraging, indicating there is a growing number of Malaysians who will not simply lie back and let a fellow human being be harassed and bullied.

Malaise and mediocrity

Yet, despite all this, it is sad to observe that the very people who see themselves as the ‘vanguard’ of the academic profession, ‘professors’ who not so long ago set up their own‘ council’, have remained rather silent on this matter. Indeed, aside from a terse statement from one of their ilk that they will not comment on the controversy, these brave members of such an ‘august’ body have kept themselves ‘clean’.

If anything, this privileged group merely represents the top of a rotten pile of fat cat academics, more concerned about getting ahead in life, about climbing up the Malaysian social ladder, than they are about upholding principles, about fighting a cause.

Which really brings us to the heart of the matter – the malaise and mediocrity in contemporary Malaysian academia.

There are, of course innumerable reasons – many related – we can put forward to explain the woes besetting local universities:

  • a school system that encourages rote-learning;
  • ongoing political interference that, among other things, results in an ethnically-biased university selection system (for staff and students) that, in turn, really doesn’t favour merit over everything else;
  • a university structure, headed by vice chancellors and their deputies who are political appointees, that more often than not leads to the levelling down of standards, rather than the attainment of gold (international) standards; and
  • of course, the UUCA.

There is, of course, another related factor that any candid and rational discussion of the problems faced by local universities cannot ignore: the quality of local academics.

Indeed, a perennial refrain is that standards have dropped primarily because of the “brain-drain” – where many of our best academics have left Malaysian universities for better paid jobs elsewhere.

This is an oversimplification. As the case of Aziz Bari indicates, there certainly remain many good local academics of international repute from every discipline who have opted to stay in academia – and in local public universities – in spite of the possibilities of getting better remuneration elsewhere.

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These scholars can hold their own anywhere. They diligently conduct original research, are invited and funded to deliver papers at local and international seminars and conferences, and publish in respected local and international publications.

Pride in their profession, and not financial rewards, is what drives them on.

Slackers and deadwood

Equally – and unfortunately – as with any organisation, there are the slackers, the deadwood: those who came into academia without any worthwhile vision of what education – and educating – entails. Those who initially were just looking for a job, any job. Those who see working in public universities as being akin to joining the laid-back Malaysian civil service.

Within this group, there are also those whose already-limited ideals and commitment have waned further over the years, as age – and administrative positions – catches up with them, and their bank balances become healthier.

The problem, it would seem, is that this group is increasingly becoming dominant in our campuses. Graduating from mediocre departments in local and overseas universities of dubious quality, they often have no inkling how to write a decent research proposal, let alone conduct research.

For them, the Malaysian university structure being the way it is, there is security of tenure, irrespective of their lack of quality publications or the lack of research done and published or patented.

They tend to believe that having obtained a doctorate is enough. They show their faces on campus, conduct the required classes, sometimes based on outdated notes they scribbled down in graduate school, knowing that a virtual pay increment is theirs for the taking at the end of each year.

There also exist senior academics who feel they have done it all and have no wish to push themselves further intellectually.

In other words, and as illustrated by our remarkable Council of professors, we have professors who really have nothing new to profess.

Some are harmless, principally because they know their limitations. But others, frustrated with and insecure about their inability to overcome their limitations, pick on the younger faculty, those with potential, trying to break through in the profession.

They continuously take it upon themselves to dissuade younger colleagues from conducting worthwhile work – from going to prestigious international conferences , for example, because they deem them ‘inappropriate’ and unimportant. It is not surprising that they do so because they themselves hardly get invited and are simply envious that junior colleagues, on the other hand, get such invitations.

The problem with such faculty is that not only have they been found wanting as intellectuals, but they are also spoilers, not wishing the younger faculty to do any better. Blindly jealous of the potential and achievements of others, they do as much as they can to impede the progress of individuals and, in turn, the overall organisation. And, unfortunately, this has become the culture in some university departments in Malaysia.

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And the problem is further heightened when it becomes the norm for this type of academic to head important academic committees and supervise postgraduate students. When a supervisor has done no quality research beyond her/his PhD, nor published extensively, one can imagine the type of ‘expert’ on whom the poor candidate has to depend to get her/his studies successfully completed. It becomes a case of the blind being led by the equally blind.

Radical re-examination needed

Granted, some universities are now taking steps to purportedly correct the situation. Cynics and sceptics continue to point out, however, that this has more to do with being embarrassed at finding themselves located in the lower rungs of international rankings yearly than with a genuine desire to overhaul the rotten system. If they are even mentioned in the rankings at all, that is.

Hence, sceptics argue, such reform cannot be led by the very people who screwed up the system in the first place. That is, those with dubious track records who managed to weasel their way up the academic ladder through, among other things, their ethnic background, political connections and, of course, through extensive apple-polishing

It should be all too obvious to everyone concerned by now, especially given the Aziz Bari case, that these problems require a radical reexamination of the policies and structures which underpin our system of higher – especially university – education.

It requires, first, the depoliticisation of university academic staff recruitment and similar depoliticisation when appointing key university administrators, such as vice chancellors, deans, directors and their deputies. Hence, the UUCA has to go.

Indeed, as long as the rigid, feudal, politically and racially-tainted civil service structure determining the development of our universities and our academics is not initially dismantled and replaced with a more enlightened one based on genuine talent and creativity, no amount of patching up of the rot that has set in will change things.

A genuine, thorough and unbiased reexamination would require respected individuals at the helm; those dedicated to academic excellence in its truest sense, not merely in the sense of pleasing certain groups – especially political parties like Umno – individuals and tendencies in society.

The alternative, of course, is unrelenting and unrivalled mediocrity.

Zaharom Nain, an Aliran member, is currently teaching at the Malaysian campus of a foreign university.

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hsian loon
hsian loon
28 Dec 2011 6.43pm

Thank you for the interesting read. Hopefully our dear gahmen doesn’t catch wind of someone like yourself,else you might accidentally strangle yourself or fall through a closed window .till then keep on writing!