Azmil Tayeb on self-censorship, public engagement and academic freedom in Malaysia

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Rasa di puncak dunia: Ada kami nyatakan … Azmil juga seorang pengembara yang tegar! – ALIRAN

Naratif Malaysia recently sat down with Dr Azmil Tayeb, a political scientist and senior lecturer from Universiti Sains Malaysia.

He obtained his PhD from the Australian National University (ANU) and is the author of Islamic Education in Indonesia and Malaysia: Shaping Minds, Saving Souls. He is also the honorary secretary of Aliran, a civil society reform movement.

In this interview, Dr Azmil discussed the contours of academic freedom and the ways in which academics can play the role of public intellectuals.

Naratif Malaysia: Can you walk us through your journey in academia?

Dr Azmil: My involvement in academia is actually a long, winding journey, not a linear progression. Many academics know this is what they want to do all along. They study starting from bachelors, masters and PhD. Then, they become lecturers. It took me more than 10 years to decide to become an academic. I worked for 10 years in the US after I finished my bachelors degree.

Even after I received my masters, I still did not decide to become an academic yet. I spent one year as a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia.

Then, my supervisor at that time, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I did my masters, was about to move to Australia.

I had a long discussion with him about my plan to pursue a PhD.

He suggested I go to Australian National University (ANU) instead of staying on in the US.

I told him my plan was to move back to Malaysia for good. I didn’t plan to stay on in the US forever. It took some time for me to think about it because it was a big decision.

So, I came back to Malaysia and stayed for some time. I thought, what am I going to do in Malaysia? I decided to apply for a teaching job in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). It was 2009. I emailed the dean of social sciences at that time, Prof Ismail Baba.

He said, “Come to Penang. We have to talk….” So, he offered me an adjunct position. I didn’t have a PhD yet. So he offered me a contract lecturer’s position.

That’s how I started with USM in 2009. The initial plan was for a one-year contract, but I got an extension for two years because USM automatically renewed the contract. After that, I decided to not renew the contract anymore for the third year because I didn’t want to lose the momentum for PhD.

At that time, I was already accepted to ANU, but they couldn’t offer me a scholarship. So, I decided to apply for Erasmus Mundus. That was how I ended up in Berlin at Humboldt University. I spent six months there.

Then, I finally got a scholarship offer in ANU. That was how I ended up in ANU, but I did ask USM if they wanted me to come back. So, I signed a bond with USM because it was my plan to come back to Malaysia. I didn’t intend to settle elsewhere because I wanted to come back to Malaysia.

After I finished my PhD in 2016, I went back to Penang and started working. I have been in USM for five years. So, that’s how I started with my academic career.

How would you assess the state of academic freedom in Malaysia? Maybe you could draw some comparisons with the US or Australia given your experience?

From my experience, we can divide it into pre-2018 and post-2018. As I said, I first joined USM in 2009. That was still under the Umno-BN government. As we know, academic freedom on campus can be quite repressive. I had some experience to tell as well. I think students bear the most repression from campus officials. But, we (academics) still got threatened.

I remember the Bersih 2 rally in 2011, for example. I was still in USM at that time, even though I was about to leave for Germany. All the USM staff got a memo from the ministry prohibiting us from participating in the Bersih rally. If anyone got caught participating in Bersih, we would face disciplinary action or punishment. It was not just for academics, but for students as well – basically, it was for all warga USM.

I remember some students came to see me after class, asking my opinion whether they should attend it or not. They wanted to attend but they feared repercussions – how it would be if USM finds out.

For me, it was a matter of principle. The only way you can test your principles is by putting them to the test. It is easy to hold on to principles when everything is normal and safe. You will know how strong your principles or convictions are when you put them to the test.

Another thing is to see whether USM truly punishes students – but nothing happened.

Democratic dawn: Azmil Tayeb joined a mass of Malaysians yearning for change

After Bersih, I wrote an article for The Malaysian Insider, one day after. I refuted all the government’s allegations about Bersih being violent and disruptive. I wrote this article in the national media, but I did not get any disciplinary action from USM.

So I thought it was purely an empty threat. It was about creating a climate of intimidation. The only way to know whether they would follow through with the threat was by actually participating in the rally. That was before 2018.

After 2018, we could see a marked change in academic freedom, especially on campus – a qualitative change. There was no harassment of students who wanted to gather for group discussions, events and even politically motivated events on campus itself without permission from Hal Ehwal Pelajar (Student Affairs).

Partly, it was because of the changing of the status quo and the campus officials didn’t really know how to react. Some of the critical students and lecturers took advantage of that by organising public forums, group discussions, film screenings and inviting people outside the campus to give a talk.

Before 2018, we could not hold these on our campus. Some students did try but then they got harassed by campus security. So, they held the event or programme just outside the campus – for example, at the Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) office or Ruang Kongsi just across the street from the USM gate or at Restoran Khaleel across the street from the USM Stadium. It is outside the campus but convenient enough for the students to attend.

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So, we could definitely see the change after 2018. That was under Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Then, Perikatan Nasional (PN) took over. Campus is now empty [due to the pandemic and lockdown]. No students and no activities for more than one and a half years. So it is difficult to see how the PN government will react to student activism on campus. Maybe we can see it in the upcoming semester in October if the campus opens and students come back. Hopefully, we can see it.

But I doubt it. As we can see now, there is repression and activists being called up for investigation. I fear we are going to see the same dynamics also on campus.

You spent a long time abroad. When did you hear about AUKU [the Universities and University Colleges Act] and its existence? Was there a similar problem abroad?

I forgot to tell you about studying in the US. It was a completely different campus dynamic. Almost every day, something was going on. It was quite a shock for me. When I did my masters, it was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is one of the most political campuses in the US. This is where people during the Vietnam War … there were clashes with police. It is one of the most radical campuses in the US like Madison and Berkeley are like the leftist bastions.

In Madison, it was so normal to have protests, sit-ins, workshops, etc. It was so vibrant. It was not just leftist. We had the right wing and Christian evangelists too. Then, you had the anti-abortion group as well. It ranged across the whole ideological spectrum. [I did my undergraduate study at the Marquette University, a very conservative Jesuit institution. So, it was not very politically active compared to Wisconsin-Madison.] It was not only domestic and national issues (in Wisconsin-Madison), but international issues like Free Tibet, the Chiapas indigenous issue (the Zapatista movement), the drug war in Columbia, the Iraq war sanctions, the Palestinian issue, American imperialism. It was such an exhilarating place to be because you always had something to join, like workshops, film screenings, discussions and rallies. It was almost a ten-year gap between my bachelors degree and masters degree. I was already involved in political activism before that – coming to the Wisconsin-Madison campus was more like coming home. So, that was the feeling I had.

Actually, the very first time I heard about AUKU and got to know more about it was when I was in the US. I read about Malaysian history, especially critical works on Malaysian history and politics.

Then, the Reformasi movement of 1998 happened. I could see how AUKU’s repressive implications affected campus activism.

I didn’t know about AUKU before I left for the US. My generation became politicised after 1998 – that was the year I graduated with a bachelors degree. That was my ‘politicisation moment’. When I was at Marquette, I did join campus activism, keeping up to date, but not actively involved. Even though I was in the US, I felt l wanted to do something. I think it was the moment many Malaysians, especially my generation, were galvanised by what happened.

I channelled my newly politicised self into activism in the US. I was involved in a peace and social justice group in Wisconsin-Madison. We did activities to tackle issues like gun control, Iraq sanctions, and military recruitment in high school. I was not involved in the protest in Malaysia because I was not living in Malaysia. Living in the US transformed me to what I am now.

Do you encounter laws, policies or documents like Piagam Universiti and Aku Janji pledge? Are there any repercussions from these whenever you speak up?

I signed Aku Janji when I first joined USM. Even after I came back in 2016, I signed it again. However, I think it is purely a formality. I don’t think it’s taken seriously. It can be used against academic staff in the future. In reality, it is not really enforced because, looking at my case and also other scholar-activists, I don’t see the pledge being used against them by the university administration.

I think the rules are there but they are not enforced. I give comments to the media all the time without any permission or prior approval from USM, like the communications office. I didn’t receive any notice or warning from them.

So, my guess is that it is just one form of intimidation or empty threat. It is just like a preventive measure for academic staff from the beginning – by informing them that they will be liable for actions or punishments. However, I think for academic staff it is different compared to the administration staff because academic staff are not like normal civil servants. Academics have a much bigger responsibility, especially to the public.

As for me, I don’t take the Aku Janji pledge seriously. It is just a normal document but it is convenient to have to bludgeon people later on if the need arises.

But, I think they are also selective – usually to the public intellectual or scholar-activists. This is what I think as well because I have contacts outside of the campus, some media and NGO networks. If something were to happen to me, this can be easily publicised. I think they foresee the implications towards USM. I can ask some reporter friend to write and cover this. I can ask NGOs. I have access to Aliran’s website; I can write an article about this and all the things right now. And people can do petitions. I think they also realise it’s going to end up badly for USM. I don’t know. This is my guess.

Maybe, it is useful against less prominent people outside of the campus, less well-known academics maybe. But, to those who have some kind of recognition outside of campus, maybe they are extra careful because if they act, then there’s going to be a backlash.

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Actually, I had a lunch talk two or three months ago on campus before the lockdown. I had a small chat with someone higher up in the university.

He mentioned you can be a rebel but you must be a productive academic. Then, people cannot just fire you or find an excuse to punish you because you are a productive member of the university. So you create a strong academic reputation and then you can be a rebel.

You mentioned about the education you received in the US and Australia, and you shared how vibrant the experience was. Then you came back to Malaysia. How do you see the difference between academic freedom in the Malaysian context? Is it getting worse, better or stagnant?

When I came back in 2016, it was relatively bad. I remember, as soon as I came back, I became the advisor to Kelab Sains Politik USM (USM Political Science Club) until now. I remember, in 2016 or 2017, Kelab Sains Politik was suspended by the university because it was organising a programme that would not be approved by the university or HEP (Student Affairs). I can’t remember, but it was a film screening about a political documentary.

Then, they wanted to organise a trip to the Parliament and the state government office in Selangor. They were going to meet a DAP representative because Selangor is under the Pakatan government. Even in Parliament, they planned to meet with Pakatan representatives because they were the ones who were willing to meet with the group. I remember because I had to approve the programme as an advisor to the club.

I didn’t think it would pass the approval by HEP because it was clearly stated in the proposal they would meet Pakatan’s members of Parliament. However, for some reason, it was approved. I was supposed to accompany them to Parliament. Two days before departure, the students called me to apologise because the trip was cancelled by HEP.

After 2018, there was a marked change in academic freedom on campus. Students took the initiative in their own hands. If students wanted to organise something, they just organised it. I remember I invited Malaysia Muda people like Fadiah Nadwa Fikri. Even Benz Ali came and we did a book discussion on campus. It was more like a ‘guerrilla way’.

Of course, the problem was not so much about the repression because the HEP didn’t know how to react with the new government in place. They just liked to wait and see. So, the students took advantage of it. At the same time, getting other students to get involved in the activities was the main problem. There was new freedom on campus, but it did not mean students suddenly became so enthusiastic to get involved because change did not happen overnight.

Right now, I don’t know because we just had the PN government. It might go back to the old way of government since there are lots of Barisan Nasional people in the PN government right now. We will see when the new semester starts, when the students go back to campus.

You are active with some associations like Aliran. Then, you’re an advisor for Kelab Sains Politik USM. You also did community services, seminars, public lectures, writing books and journals, and other research. How do you perceive the relationship between the state and academics? And what are the roles of academics towards society?

On questions related to academics’ relationship with the state, the relationship between the state and academia is mutually beneficial. I think academics should not be cloistered in ivory towers.

Definitely, they should go out and engage with the government, which they actually do – especially those in the sciences. Nothing should be less though in the social sciences; definitely there should be mutual engagement between academics and government, especially in helping with policies.

I think the best illustration would be this time of pandemic. People tend to look at it as a public health crisis. We can see the approach in dealing with the pandemics has been overwhelmingly scientific because we are dealing with the virus. Scientists and doctors have become the trusted advisors, which they should be.

At the same time, social scientists should not be neglected because we are also dealing with people and society. If you want to roll out the vaccines, a social awareness programme, or dispel misinformation about the virus and vaccine, you need social scientists. People who understand how society works.

I think this is what we are lacking right now. Pandemic management really lays bare the marginalisation of social scientists in policymaking. I think there should be more engagement for sure.

When it comes to public intellectuals, not everyone can be a public intellectual. Not everyone has the versatility, wisdom, knowledge to talk about various topics like Noam Chomsky does.

But, at the same time, academics should try to engage with the public. At the very least, disseminate your research findings to the public in a way they can understand, and explain how these can actually benefit the public or society. Instead of engaging within academia itself, attending conferences, academic forums, etc. they should find outlets to promote their work. It is a good skilled exercise as well, because once you engage with the public, you don’t want to have all this jargon and technical terms, but you will write in an engaging, interesting and accessible way to the general public.

My colleagues have done very interesting research. They talk about the prison population, juveniles, domestic violence, grievances among Malay parents, coping skills, incest – which are important issues, but they are limited within the academic circle. They listen to and read the media, but I bet the public doesn’t know about the actual research into these issues.

We don’t need to be public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky – he is a rare breed – but do something in your own small way and capacity. At least, find a way to share your research. You can contribute articles to Astro Awani, Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insight, and work with NGOs to organise public forums, or even work with government agencies.

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I think a lot of academics have this reservation: that

they are not so good at public speaking. I do help some of my colleagues, but the main problem is self-confidence. They feel they’re being judged by the public. Having self-doubt is the issue.

You made an interesting point about public engagement. There are a number of conservative intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals who frequently write for the public, especially on social media. It is almost like an industry. But when we look into progressive voices, why the disparity?

I think the reason is that the conservatives are more ideologically driven. They can be a small group, but they are very loud. They tend to amplify each other’s voices. But we can still find the progressive voices out there. It is not so much like left vs right.

For some academics, writing for the public is seen as a form of activism, which can be like a taboo. This can be the situation for a lot of academics as well. Some of my colleagues just don’t want that kind of a spotlight on them. They just want to be within the ivory tower doing their work, undisturbed, avoiding distractions, and minimising the exposure on themselves as well. The scrutiny and criticism, of course, will come with that spotlight. These are their concerns.

If you are an expert on a specific topic or subject, you should not be worried about scrutiny or criticism. This is because you are well-equipped and well-positioned to defend yourself – unless you are talking about something outside your expertise like ‘palatao’. It comes to my earlier point about self-doubt and confidence.

Lastly, in your view, what should be done to improve the state of academic freedom in Malaysian higher education?

In terms of the role of AUKU in preventing academics from speaking out, I think it serves as a preventive measure and an intimidating tactic because the academics are made aware of the existence of this law. If you do anything that goes against the law, then you will be punished. So there is always this threat hanging over the head of academics.

But the playing field is not even. There are many pro-establishment academics who are very political – political in a way that supports the government of the day. But they don’t get punished, even when they are very political. The whole thing about AUKU was to supposedly depoliticise campuses, but it is not a uniform depoliticisation. In implementation, it was only to depoliticise those who are critical of government or dissenting voices on campus. For those political voices in support of the government, they are allowed or even encouraged (or rewarded through promotion).

So, AUKU is definitely lopsided. It is unfair. If you want to say academics should not be political and objective, then you must apply it uniformly across the board even to those who are political in support of the government, as equally as it is used against those academics who are critical of the government. The issue is it is only used against those who are critical of the government; it is a purely repressive tool.

On how to improve academic freedom in Malaysia, I think because of the neoliberalisation of higher education in Malaysia, you can see how the government administration uses the word freedom a lot. However, this kind of freedom is more in terms of income-generation and from an economic point of view. Government wants to reduce funding of the public university and allow freedom for the university to find their own income. Government now sees freedom for higher education in the context of economics, not political or freedom of speech, freedom of association. It is not a comprehensive idea of freedom.

So, to improve, it has to include these.

First, expand on what the PH government did before, which even then they only amended a minimal section of AUKU, which was to allow political parties on campus. This is because it serves their purpose. It should be NGOs as well.

To me, you should look toward Western universities, the ideal of academic freedom on campus. You can organise things: this is the stage of their life when students are experimenting and searching for their identities. Freedom is a big part of it. You should be allowed to explore different things – and even lecturers as well. I see my role as beyond the classroom. I am an advisor to two clubs, Kelab Sains Politik and Persatuan Mahasiswa Selangor dan Kuala Lumpur.

We need a comprehensive idea of freedom, not limited to the economic dimension. The students should not have to ask permission from the HEP to organise an event, for example.

Secondly, I am not sure about other universities, but in USM, students need to collect ‘points’. They need them to preserve a room in Desasiswa or a hostel, so students only engage in activities that fulfil the points. When I organise something without points authorised by HEP, the turnout is low. If it is up to HEP to approve the points, students will choose to attend those with points.

Definitely, I think students and lecturers should not be harassed for organising political things on campus, and should be able to invite people from outside. There should be more freedom – not only for political parties but also for NGO or activists to come as well. That would be a good start. – Naratif Malaysia

This interview is part of a research project (MAL 169 – After 50 Years of AUKU: The Role and Impact of AUKU’s Development on Academic Freedom in Malaysia) by Naratif Malaysia in collaboration with the Malaysia Reform Initiative (MARI), Higher Education Malaysia Association (HEYA), Cent-GPS and Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM). This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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