The University of Malaya used to be a beacon for progressive higher education.
It had excellent top leadership helming it, like the late Royal Professor Ungku Aziz Hamid and Syed Hussein Alatas, although, sadly, the latter was hard done by, due to the politics of the period.
It had fiery student leaders like Anwar Ibrahim and world-class academics like Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Syed Husin Ali and Terence Gomez.
It had a vibrant speakers’ corner and a variety of strong students’ unions that prepared its young adults for the world outside.
Its students and faculty stood right up there with the best in the region and the world.
But not anymore. While the university is still regarded as Malaysia’s top university, this clearly says more about the limitations of the other universities than it does of the University of Malaya’s inherent quality.
The politicisation of Malaysia’s higher education system, including this university, since the 1970s, saw the rot rapidly setting in. This has been made worse by repressive laws like the Universities and University Colleges Act and having technocrats and political toadies at the very top, replacing genuine scholars with a vision.
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The recent debacle and overreaction by the university’s administrators illustrate this sad situation. It was the university’s orientation week. The students’ union had organised a forum on freedom of speech in the campus on 13 October, with the deputy chairman of the Election Commission, Dr Azmi Sharom being one of the speakers, together with former University of Malaya Association of New Youth (Umany) president Wong Yan Ke.
There was a complaint, evidently by the head of a politically affiliated student association. The complaint was against Wong, who has a case pending in court, brought about by the university authorities as an overreaction to his graduation day protest against the then vice-chancellor.
Based on this complaint, the authorities halted the forum, switched off the sound system and told the students – and Azmi – to leave the hall. Some of the organisers were taken in for questioning by campus security, and their fate is still uncertain.
It is sad that such an overreaction could occur yet again in our ‘premier’ university.
But what the Malaysian academic movement, Gerak, finds pathetic is that not a single university staff union has yet come out to openly oppose the high-handed behaviour of the campus authorities. Neither have the professors’ councils.
It is as if freedom of speech – along with its corollary, academic freedom – is deemed not important, nor the plight of the students.
Gerak came out in support of Wong when the university’s administrative juggernaut came out to crush him in 2019. We come out in support again, this time in support of the university’s students’ union, which organised the forum.
And we condemn in no uncertain terms the fascistic display of power by the university authorities, clearly ignorant of the importance of rights and academic freedom. – Gerak