UiTM controversy: Opposing a ‘parallel pathway’ to shared humanity?

Do not allow the bigotry and political expedience of certain quarters to cloud our vision of an progressive inclusive and democratic country


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The race factor in Malaysia seems to be so overwhelming at times it not only defies the national interest but clouds our shared humanity as well.

Certain quarters shot down a recent proposal to temporarily open up the cardiothoracic surgery postgraduate programme at the Mara Technological University (UiTM) to ethnic minority trainee doctors.

These quarters feared that the doors of this bumiputra-only institution would be left ajar, opening the floodgates for a larger intake of minority students in the future.

That the suggestion was only meant as a temporary measure to resolve an urgent situation seemed lost on those wearing race-tinted glasses.

Couldn’t an exception be made to a ‘general rule’ in the interest of everyone in Malaysia, especially patients who desperately need surgery?

The 214-strong UiTM students council made their stand known: they persuaded the students to dress in black as a mark of protest against the suggestion. Hands off UiTM, they insisted.

Strangely, the council later ‘apologised’ for having caused confusion or misunderstanding because of the protest. But the objective of the protest was as clear as daylight: the students were opposing the temporary opening up of the programme to ethnic minority trainees.

UiTM Vice-Chancellor Shahrin Sahib waded into this issue, lending support to the students’ contention. He said the university would adhere to Section 1A of the UiTM Act 1976, which states that the university was established in line with Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

Not to be outdone, other vice-chancellors and rectors of public universities got into the act, chorusing that the minorities should not be allowed to enter UiTM.

Pray tell, what message were the leaders of these ivory towers sending to their students regarding the national interest?

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Higher Education Minister Zambry Kadir echoed a similar sentiment. He said discussions on this matter had not yet been held, whether at the ministry level or within the cabinet.

It is disturbing that this urgent matter was not prioritised.

Still, dissenting voices could be heard. Former UiTM vice-chancellor Ibrahim Shah Abu Shah supported the proposal that the university temporarily open up its cardiothoracic surgery training to ethnic minority medical officers.

Advocacy group Lawyers for Liberty argued that barring the minorities from entering the programme was not only untenable but also unconstitutional.

Given the urgency, Aliran said it felt the serious healthcare needs of the common people should override ethnic-based considerations.

Some background is in order. UiTM and the National Heart Institute run a joint programme to produce cardiothoracic surgeons – the only course of its kind in the country.

But there is a “parallel pathway” for cardiothoracic surgery specialist training run by the Ministry of Health with a foreign royal college. Unfortunately, this pathway is not recognised by the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC).

Four graduates from the cardiothoracic surgery programme with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and six Universiti Sains Malaysia graduates reportedly sued the MMC for refusing to register them on the national specialists register.

Many others were left scratching their heads over the rationale for the refusal.  

Given the urgent need for cardiothoracic surgeons, a proposal was mooted to allow the temporary opening of the UiTM programme to the parallel pathway trainees.

Health website CodeBlue’s report on 25 April regarding this matter raises deeper concern. Prof Raja Amin Raja Mokhtar, who is on the board of studies of the UiTM-National Heart Institute programme, said back then that the university was agreeable to opening up the programme to ethnic minority trainees and graduates.

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He said the decision was made after UiTM’s vice-chancellor and the chairperson of the UiTM board were consulted. Both apparently agreed to the idea for a limited period (until the launch of a similar programme catering to diverse students at the University of Malaya).

Prof Raja Amin said this was after the ministries of health and of higher education had approached UiTM to come up with a solution in light of the country’s acute shortage of cardiothoracic surgeons.

If the CodeBlue report is true, it begs a few questions. Why did the university backtrack? Have the UiTM vice-chancellor and Zambry succumbed to the loud voices of the protesters and Malay nationalists? Has the long-term interest of Malaysia been overtaken by short-term political expediency?

All this, despite Malaysian Medical Association president Dr Azizan Abdul Aziz pleading with UiTM “to make a decision in the best interest of the health of the population and address acute shortages in specialists”.

Meanwhile, a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy reportedly died in Sabah because of a shortage of such specialists. Many more patients might suffer because there are too few specialists.

So this is a humanitarian issue that should concern the public, especially medical professionals and students.

This is why it is mind-boggling to see Umno youth wing chief Akmal Saleh, with a medical background to boot, brazenly playing the race card to defy the request for a temporary opening. All this in his attempt to ‘champion’ UiTM as a bumiputra preserve.

Not only that, Akmal found it necessary to lambast Malaysiakini columnist Andrew Sia and call for police reports to be lodged against him. In doing so, the medical doctor has in effect made commentary critical of those opposing the temporary opening appear like a criminal act.

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Such arrogance has no place in a profession that is supposed to adhere to its Hippocratic Oath. For that matter, anyone who cares for humanity should put human lives before ‘race’.

Akmal should heed the advice of Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil, who recently reminded politicians to exercise their right of reply. They should just engage in civilised and intelligent discourse. Scaremongering is no alternative to sober conversation.

Former deputy law minister Hanipa Maidin pointed out that Akmal should not have involved the police in matters of intellectual exchange.

Turning to the police is tantamount to anti-intellectualism, as Bukit Bendera MP Syerleena Rashid succinctly put it.

The ruckus created by the likes of Akmal should not distract us from doing what is urgently required: swiftly resolving the conundrum of unregistered cardiothoracic specialists in a public healthcare system that lacks such expertise.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said the cabinet will discuss the issue in its upcoming meeting.

Let’s hope the ministers come up with a quick and practical solution for the sake of the people. Don’t allow the bigotry and political expedience of certain quarters to cloud our vision of an inclusive and democratic country.

Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
27 May 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Gursharan Singh
Gursharan Singh
27 May 2024 8.26pm

Wonder how many academics and political leaders will provide their views on this subject perceived to have risk for ordinary people who may have differing views.
Bless all