When universities become co-opted to assuage the feelings of a dominant majority, we can be sure that the hopes for social cohesion are quickly becoming beyond us, writes Mary Varghese.
My blood ran cold upon seeing pictures of the recent Malay Dignity Congress held in pursuit of mono-ethnic dignity.
The event brought back chilling memories of Barisan Nasional-era Umno rallies where gesticulating speakers spouted hatred towards ethnic minorities in the country. I never thought I would witness a similar event under the apparently inclusive Pakatan Harapan government.
How wrong I was. The inescapable colonial-era legacy of the racialisation of life is a Malaysian reality.
We recall the wisdom of scholars on this subject. The University of Malaya once had stalwarts for vice-chancellors. They were deeply thoughtful intellectuals like Syed Hussein Alatas, whose book The Myth of the Lazy Native continues to be appreciated for its insightful views on the impact of colonisation.
We recall these views, as well as those of thinkers like Edward Said, when we see history repeating itself in gatherings such as the Malay Dignity Congress (funded out of taxpayers’ coffers?) that are used to divide the nation and to turn neighbour against neighbour.
Historically, race was a political tool to control native populations and keep them in their silos, away from each other. Post-independence, this tool has been effectively used for six decades and has done untold damage to the cause of a Malaysian identity.
On the weekend of 6 October, the PH government showed that it was no different in adopting this legacy, gracefully and gratefully, thereby continuing the damage to a divided nation.
An additional element at the recent rally was the support given by four public universities, the credit for which presumably goes to the current Ministry of Education and the minister in charge.
The irony behind the event was the involvement of the University of Malaya – once under the stewardship of Syed Hussein Alatas.
The state of knowledge of a university may be judged by how vice-chancellors distinguish themselves. In this, there is a stark contrast between the legacy of Alatas’ academic pursuits and the current vice-chancellor’s participation in what was essentially an ethno-centric rabble-rousing event.
Where one wrote for the nation and the world, another stood on a stage, ostensibly in support of narrowing visions. The participation was shocking, but if allegations are to be believed, the latter also lowered the dignity of his office in uttering remarks that were antithetical to learning, intellectual thought and compassion.
Universities have powerful roles to play in nation-building. But as reports and responses to that weekend showed us, they can also be the means of destruction of a social fabric that has always been fragile at best.
Historically, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts thrived in various locales because of support from powerful individuals and institutions. Despite the nation giving a mandate to a party that campaigned on a non-ethnic platform, it is apparent that upon winning, the current administration is now having a rethink about this approach.
Some of the most powerful institutions that nations have are their universities. When these become co-opted by political institutions to assuage the feelings of a dominant majority, we can be sure that the hopes for social cohesion, the dreams of a fairer world and the idea of justice for all are quickly becoming beyond us.
We are going back to the same divisive past we sought to change on 9 May 2018.
Dr Mary Varghese works in a local private university as a senior lecturer in language studies with an interest in political discourse.