By Ahmad Ibrahim
Our centre [the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy Studies] recently hosted a lecture by a prominent historian on the topic of scholarship and activism.
The topic may be alien to some but the one hour presentation by Dr TG Lim convinced many who attended that scholarship and activism do form a potent mix for real reform. Quoting the many years of fighting to end apartheid in South Africa, many may not be aware of the decisive contribution coming from the scholarship and activism movement then.
The key message from the lecture was the strategic importance of scholars to be actively involved in pushing for change. Malaysia is now in the midst of seriously contemplating reform for the betterment of the nation. We are talking about the need and urgency for a range of reforms including institutional, economic, educational, social and political.
The few who attended, whom we regard as veterans of the country’s reform movement all these years, shared their views on the subject of the talk. Three of them used to serve in politics, while the others were involved in NGOs. All without exception count among Malaysians who have made their mark trying to build the country to be a great nation that we all aspire to.
All who came agreed that it would do the nation much good if more scholars and intellectuals give their time to share their knowledge with the community at large. All were unanimous on the fact that politics alone will not deliver reform. The involvement of scholars and academics can make a big difference.
It is unfortunate that this is sorely lacking in the country at the present time. Can it be because it is not part of the KPIs [key performance indicators]? There have been some calls for scholarly activism to be a prominent component of the KPIs for academics. But they have not been successful.
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The common feeling is that many of the KPIs are only concerned with academic performance. Publishing in peer reviewed journals takes the cake among the expected deliverables by academics. Though there has been some encouragement lately for scholars to devote some of their time to community work, real activism is unfortunately not included in the scheme of academia.
Activism would sometimes involve rocking the boat and status quo. It seems this is not tolerated. There are a few who silently defy such a ruling. Judging by the feedback from the communities, many rakyat [people] appreciate such initiatives. The positive impacts would have been more if such scholarly activism is better recognised in the performance measurement by the authorities.
It is common knowledge that scholarly activism is highly encouraged in the developed economies. For example, it is widely known that in some developed economies, government funding of NGOs is common. Admittedly, there are some matters which governments cannot say openly because of diplomatic sensitivities. But they need to be said in the interest of nation=building. So the job is often assigned to NGOs instead.
Such NGOs are often used by scholars to pursue their activism agenda. They can be very effective and convincing because scholars bring with them facts and evidence. This is what we call evidence-based as against emotion-driven activism.
A common area where such tactics are deployed includes the issues of sustainability and the environment. According to studies, the sustainability movements in the developed countries are mostly government-funded. Many of these studies are intended to support the trade and economic interests of the countries funding them, including through their NGOs. Often developing countries end up as victims of developed nations’ research.
It may be time for developing countries like Malaysia to use the NGO approach to fight our trade and economic battles. This is where scholarly activism can feature and make a positive impact.
However, in order to breed such movements, the rules must change. Come to think of it, there is more that the country can gain by making it more conducive for the rise in what some refer to as public intellectualism. Many believe such scholarly activism can also be a good breeding ground for future leaders.
Furthermore, it is a known fact that people who join NGOs are often passionate about the cause the movements present. It is clear, as echoed by those who attended the lecture by Dr TG Lim, scholarship and activism can produce a truly potent mix for reform.
Prof Dato Dr Ahmad Ibrahim is a professor of chemical engineering at UCSI University and coordinator of the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy Studies