Mustfa K Anuar speaks to several academics about the newfound freedom in universities in the country.
Academics have hailed the recent move by Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik to allow freedom to hold academic discourses in public universities.
Associate professor Faisal Hafiz of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia said although this is a small step, it is an important one towards reclaiming academic freedom in Malaysian universities.
“I said this because academic freedom is not only about having the freedom to disseminate knowledge and ideas (ie holding forums), but it is also about having the freedom to teach, to do research and write as well.
“This freedom should be institutionalised in a new law that will replace the Universities and University Colleges Act and also university constitution,” he said.
Malaysian Academic Movement (Gerak) chairman Zaharom Nain welcomed any development that would lead to a vibrant, creative and critical environment in our local universities.
“For too long, these elements leading to more openness have been frowned upon, if not totally oppressed, by self-serving BN apparatchiks on our campuses masquerading as academic leaders,” said the professor from Nottingham University Malaysia campus.
While welcoming this move, Faisal, however, cautioned that it should not be made in the form of a directive from the minister because this would allow the minister and his ministry to dictate what could be done in universities.
Echoing similar concern, Zaharom said university decisions must be in the hands of an enlightened and progressive university leadership – not external, especially political, actors, however seemingly benign. “Hence,” he said, “there must be wider reforms that lead to public universities becoming more autonomous and genuinely serve the public.”
Universiti Malaya academic Dr Por Heong Hong makes an important distinction between academic freedom and academic autonomy. She said: “While academic freedom requires removal of political interference or external structural constraint, academic autonomy is about a scholar’s free will, which collectively can contribute to great knowledge production.
“Even under political pressure, one can exercise one’s free will to circumvent restrictions; that’s academic autonomy.
“A scholar with independent thinking doesn’t wait for the authority to give him/her green light to do good research, to ask critical questions or to commence one’s intellectual pursuit; that’s academic autonomy.”
In light of this newfound freedom, she also suggested that university libraries be made accessible to the general public as they are funded by taxpayers.
Faisal said there is a long list of reforms that needed to be done in Malaysian universities, some of which were university leadership, laws that violated academic freedom, a negative work culture such as a culture of fear and apple-polishing, equity in students’ intakem and hiring of academic and administrative staff.
He added: “The freedom to hold forums is important to promote quality and critical debate on current issues and other academic-related matters. It is also about celebrating the diversity of ideas which is very important in generating new knowledge.”
Wang Lay Kim of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), who is equally happy with this ministerial move, said: “For a long time, the practice in universities has been to allow only forums that are safe or delivered by people whom the university top management or deans allow.
“As a result, the discourse is skewed towards only one perspective, one dimension, allowing very little room for developing ideas and enhancing academic excellence.”
Dr Khoo Ying Hooi of Universiti Malaya, who has similar observation about restrictions on forums in the past, said universities should be cleansed of what she called the civil service culture of “yang menurut perintah”, which hinders robust academic activities on campus.
While embracing academic freedom for lecturers, Dr Azmil Tayeb of USM also felt that student groups must take the initiative to hold forums and not wait for the university authorities to get the ball rolling. “A big part of this freedom is student empowerment and autonomy, and hence the students must start being proactive about taking advantage of this newfound freedom,” he said.
Most of the above academics, however, cautioned that there would initially be some resistance from certain quarters, especially academics who were not used to dissenting views and ideas which were not considered mainstream.
But, they added, this resistance would dissipate soon after “the leaders” of these reluctant academics accept the new academic environment.