Dignity, credibility and Malaysian academia

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The majority of academics haven’t exactly been the vanguard of the people or agents for social change, observes Rom Nain.

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Those who brought Psy to Malaysia now realise that ‘pulling out all the stops’, if done in a totally haphazard, unprofessional manner, can yield unintentionally sad or even hilarious results.

As we finally come up to the finishing straight, after more than a year of anxiously waiting, and speculating when GE13 would take place, it is certainly not surprising that this regime should pull out all the stops at this juncture to enable it to survive, no matter how undeserving it may be.

But ‘pulling out all the stops’, if done in a totally haphazard, unprofessional manner, unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on whose side you are on – can yield unintentionally sad or even hilarious results.

The recent, very expensive, debacle in Penang surrounding South Korean one-hit wonder, Psy, a clearly embarrassed and humiliated Ah Jib Gor, and members of a hopeless component party in denial, clearly illustrates this.

This plain stupidity often continues to be best illustrated by the antics of the regime’s minions in a variety of institutions and contexts, including those in the civil service, the media and, certainly, in education.

Despicable, dishonest and diabolical

Indeed, in the regime’s struggle to survive, there is perhaps no sight sadder and more pitiful for some Malaysians – weary and long in the tooth though we may be – than that of once fiercely independent and internationally-respected academics and activists sharing the same platform as the leaders of a regime that many deem to be despicable, dishonest and diabolical.

The very same regime that these scholars and critics had been opposed to for so many decades.

While some are simply dismissive of these acts as merely being predictable repeats of previous such acts, many others, evidently, after the initial surprise, just feel betrayed and disgusted. In their eyes, such creatures deserve nothing more than utter contempt.

Granted, academics are also human beings. And, certainly, in contemporary Malaysia, the majority of academics haven’t exactly been the vanguard of the people, the principal – and principled – agents for social change.

The rot in the education system

The senior Umno politician, Tengku Razaleigh, himself was reported as saying in the news portal, Free Malaysia Today, late last year that our education system is in “tatters”. For him, “the sad truth is that the rot in our education system started with the executive interferences linked to the New Economic Policy”.

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In other words, no matter how we may cut it, external, political (and, increasingly, economic) forces continue to impinge upon and negatively affect our education system – from primary to tertiary levels.

For some, especially concerned parents, this has resulted in the ‘talibanisation’ of our public school system. By this, they mean that religious dogma, bigotry even, has crept into the school system, outside the official curriculum perhaps, but nonetheless becoming firmly entrenched as ‘the way things will be from now on’ – irrespective of directives to the contrary and the sweet talk by politicians denying such practices.

Like it or not, some of our public schools – seen as havens, sanctuaries in the 1960s and 70s, where we interacted, made friends with kids of other faiths and ethnic groups – have become the breeding ground for racial and religious extremists and hate groups.

Hence, we now get stories of teachers telling off non-Muslim students for not conforming to the dictates of Islam. Or their narrow version of Islam. We also get students being chastised or ridiculed for their non-Muslim religious practices.

And, of course, we constantly hear of the long-running indoctrination programmes for mainly Malay students conducted by the much-reviled Biro Tata Negara (BTN). Just to try to make sure, I suppose, that the pattern of control and the ideology of hate, exclusion and division are perpetuated and reinforced.

More recently, we hear of quite ignorant politicians, like one deputy education minister, speaking of the need for workshops and briefings for parents to help detect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) tendencies and, more shockingly, to “correct” them. It would perhaps have been understandable, though no less reprehensible, for a layperson to have uttered such nonsense.

But, when it comes – not once but a number of times – from a highly ranked official from a ministry that is supposed to be at the forefront of providing and developing knowledge, of educating, mind you, then you really ought to be asking what guides this ministry – scientific knowledge or bigotry?

Breeding grounds for subservience and servility

Then, there’s the ethnic quota system imposed in public universities and other public institutions of higher learning as well. Hence, let no one bull you into thinking that ‘meritocracy’ has replaced ‘kulit-ocracy’. Indeed, as those in the know will tell you, cakap tak serupa bikin (actions don’t match the words).

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And the quota system has extended beyond the selection of students for undergraduate, first degree, courses. Generous scholarships for pursuing postgraduate courses, especially in overseas universities, invariably have tended to be reserved for the bumiputera community. Further, as many of us have observed over the years, often only ‘ideologically-correct’ bumiputera candidates have been considered.

The fact is, studies at postgraduate level, especially overseas, tend to be extremely expensive, often costing more than an arm and a leg. Hence, this ongoing practice – indeed this ongoing discrimination – against academically qualified but ethnically (and ideologically) ‘incorrect’ candidates, has resulted in the academic staff in public universities as a whole increasingly becoming mono-ethnic and these institutions becoming the breeding grounds for subservience and servility.

On top of the practice of ‘kulit-ocracy’ we hence also have the culture of ‘bodek-ism’ (sucking up) becoming firmly embedded in our public universities.

While this in itself has not necessarily led to a drop in academic standards, it has created a rather uneasy, indeed unhealthy, environment, similar to that found in the civil service.

Indeed, public sphere academia has become very much part of the civil service, imbued with all the limitations and faults that have befallen the Malaysian civil service.

It has resulted, for example, in one premier university up north, touted as an Apex university, being reduced quite recently to being the venue for what was essentially a campaigning rally by PM Jibby. Busloads of people evidently were ferried into this once intellectually-revered campus, resplendent with sponsored tee-shirts and other paraphernalia, to swell up the numbers and to listen to what essentially were cheap party-political speeches.

When public universities, rightly, go into the community, provide service for that community, then they perform a valuable social role. It is, after all, widely agreed that universities, centres of learning generally, must give back to communities, share and apply the knowledge that is constantly generated within the ivory towers.

But when they end up as being blatant conduits for political parties and their party political propaganda they, like the people who run them, lose their credibility, their dignity. Indeed, this has been happening for quite some time now not only in our public institutions of higher learning, but throughout the different levels of our education system.

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Perils of privatisation

The rot, indeed, has set in. And the introduction of private education, with new institutions of higher learning, has not changed that. Instead, it has brought a different set of problems related to the perils of privatisation.

So, you get academic staff in these new private universities being virtually forced to teach more than 18 hours a week. This, of course, comes on top of the hours they need to spend preparing their classes, their administrative duties and, recently, even more hours spent conducting research, presenting their research findings, and publishing them.

And, of course, with private, commercially-driven institutions, bottom-line economics often dominates. The pressure to get the numbers, the stress on increasing student enrolment, has often resulted in academics in these private institutions being told to cut corners, to tolerate low quality students and, indeed, to pass them when they don’t deserve to be passed.

Just as we get top public university officers being appointed due to political connections, so do we get these days particular private universities evidently having a direct line to senior government officials whose ‘help’ they seek to make sure accreditation bodies approve their courses even when independent academic evaluators fail them.

Hence, as we head towards what promises to be a historic General Election, do please vote, and vote wisely. Think about your children, and your children’s children. Think about their education. In so doing, consider the rot that has set in – in education as in other spheres – not because it has been God’s will but clearly because of the blatant, brazen, divisive policies of the uncaring, insensitive, intolerant people in power.

And, more importantly, consider the fact that these very same people have had decades to make things better, to improve upon an education system that once was the envy of many, certainly in this region. Instead, they have brought the system to its knees.

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