by Sheridan Mahavera
The Malaysian Insider
4 July 2014
A culture of fear and pressure to follow the dictates of political masters built over three decades has made public universities anti-intellectual and mediocre, say academics.
They told The Malaysian Insider that while universities were supposed to be the conscience of society, they, however, have been neutered and muted.
They said political pressure to “toe the line” is a daily reality in universities, and those who are critical are harassed while those who kowtow are rewarded with plum posts.
At the same time, cronyism and racism have led to genuinely hardworking researchers being passed over for salary raises and promotions, while others less qualified, but on good terms with the top administrators, are easily elevated.
If the culture continues, the academics warn, standards in these varsities could plunge, making their degrees virtually worthless and their graduates almost unemployable.
Academics tell of how they always have to answer to their superiors for doing research or making statements critical of government policy.
They have been issued show cause letters, or told to tone down their public statements, or even hauled up to explain themselves to their vice-chancellors.
An academic serving at a public university in the Klang Valley recalled that he had been issued a show cause letter for his work on the plight of religious minorities.
The academic was examining allegations that local religious authorities had denied the rights of minority communities to worship. The university authorities, however, objected to the academic’s contact with a group that represented this community.
“I believe that the letter was intended to make me feel uncomfortable. It affected my ability to focus on my research.
“Other academics have also been told off this way. Some have retired,” said the Selangor-based senior researcher.
Fearing reprisal from their institutions, many academics interviewed insisted on anonymity.
One senior academic from University Sarawak Malaysia (Unimas) spoke of how state politicians had interfered in 2001 to stop a seminar on the Sarawak state elections held that year.
“In 1997, there was an external directive that we could not give any public statements on the haze that year,” said the Unimas academic. “Some academics who speak critically in public are hauled up to explain themselves to their vice-chancellors,” the lecturer said, adding that he had also been told that university officials were uncomfortable with his public statements.
Professor Datuk Dr Mohamad Redzuan Othman’s removal as the head of Universiti Malaya’s Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMcedel), then, comes as no surprise, given the centre’s past work.
Following The Malaysian Insider breaking the news of his termination, former deputy higher education minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah claimed that Redzuan was forced to resign by certain quarters within the Education Ministry.
It is believed that Redzuan had upset ministry officials with some of UMcedel’s more prolific surveys which were unflattering to the Barisan Nasional government and its leaders.
UM vice-chancellor Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin, however, denied that the ministry had pressured Redzuan to resign. He claimed that the decision was made after taking into account the university’s interests, and was not due to any outside pressure.
Loyalty over merit
Researchers and lecturers who are critical are passed over for promotions or salary increments while others who are not as critical are rewarded.
This breeds another culture of conformity. Pliant academics connected to certain politicians get appointed and they in turn appoint like-minded individuals to influential posts in the university, said the Unimas lecturer.
This gives birth to a generation of academics who “cari makan” — individuals who try not to rock the boat and who instinctively toe the line, said Prof Zaharom Nain of University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus.
Zaharom, who had served for more than 20 years in Universiti Sains Malaysia, said that younger, inexperienced academics in the arts and social sciences practise self-censorship in their work.
“It’s a disease that started creeping into Malaysian society, arguably, from the early 1980s onwards due to greater political and social control.
“It has nurtured a culture of fear and conformity in almost every sphere from education to journalism to the civil service.”
Even worse is when not only the independent-minded academics are sidelined, but also those who genuinely work hard but without “connections” to their department heads.
“One senior academic told me that no matter how good your research was, it was not worth it because it’s difficult to get a promotion,” he added.
Zaharom said he had seen hardworking academics being passed over just because of race.
“I know of one woman ex-colleague who has published so much more (and more widely) than a combination of the other lecturers, but she remains stuck at senior lecturer level while the others, by virtue of their ethnicity, have been promoted.”
The academics believed that to reverse the rot plaguing public universities, politicians must keep their hands off the universities and let them be run on merit and ability. – July 4, 2014.