Academic reform in Sarawak: Is there an issue?

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Photograph: www.unimas.my

The Malaysian Academic Movement (Gerak) is dismayed to learn of the resignation of internationally renowned academic Tan Sri Dr Kamal Salih as chairman of the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) board of directors on 6 January 2020.

Coming almost immediately after his appointment and for the most vexing of reasons, Kamal’s resignation does not bode well for tertiary education reforms in Malaysia.

Kamal’s resignation is also a double whammy for reforms since it happened barely days after Maszlee Malik’s resignation as the most reform-minded minister in the Ministry of Education’s recent history.

This double resignation is a kick in the teeth for the Pakatan Harapan government’s commitment to educational reforms.

Among the key tertiary reform priorities of Maszlee when he was minister was to advance academic freedom and make public higher education institutions – and their managers – more transparent and accountable to the people at large.

Kamal was appointed by Maszlee to helm the Unimas board of directors for three years from 1 January 2020. And evidently he was appointed to advance Maszlee’s vision of academic freedom,  public accountability and true intellectual leadership.

Anyone who has seen Kamal’s CV will realise that he is no intellectual lightweight or a managerial pushover. He has a string of academic achievements, is internationally recognised and set up the highly reputed International Medical University.

Currently he is chair of the prestigious and highly respected Malaysian Institute of Economic Research.

He is the consummate educational professional who only wanted to contribute his knowledge, expertise and experiences to the country via serving Unimas and Sarawak.

Unfortunately, the state government took a petty view of his appointment and voiced exception to the fact that they were not consulted nor was the “state government notified officially” prior to the announcement of his appointment.

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True, this may have always been the “process that was adhered to since the appointment of the first chairman”.

But that was under the previous problematic Barisan Nasional government – with which the current Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) state government was a staunch coalition partner – that contributed greatly to the current shambolic state of tertiary education in the country.

Today, the GPS state government is in opposition to the reform-minded Pakatan Harapan federal government.  

Also, there is no agreement written in stone about any “process” that obliges the federal government to “consult” with the state government when appointing any federal government senior civil servant to lead reforms in a federal institution in Sarawak.

That the GPS state government saw fit to play up its state rights vs federal government authority only reflects their lack of hesitation in continuing to stir divisive politics merely to advance the electoral prospects of their GPS coalition.

Regrettably, all done at the expense of quality higher education in Sarawak.

Rejecting experience, knowledge and international recognition purely on the basis of this pettiness undermines the reform efforts of the Pakatan Harapan federal government to improve tertiary education in Malaysia and, in this case, Sarawak.

Gerak therefore calls upon the acting Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to hold firm to professional reform efforts and to appoint an accomplished academic and internationally recognised professional to chair the Unimas board of directors.

Time is running out for the country to reform its tertiary educational institutions.

Now is not the time for the federal government to condone counterproductive political games or for the Sarawak state government to reject sound professionals from throughout Malaysia to serve in Unimas on the basis of divisive political sentiments.

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Gerak executive committee

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