Why there is no academic freedom in Malaysia


– Murray Hunter
The Malaysian Insider
5 October 2015

The Malaysian government is trying to develop the country into an education hub.

Most universities seek awards of excellence and to get their institutions into the rankings.

However, even with these aspirations, Malaysia’s overall rankings have been slipping over the last decade, while many other universities within the region have been rising dramatically.

As a consequence, Malaysian universities have been open to both domestic and international criticism, which has often resulted in successive ministers of education defend their standing.
The government is pursuing new reforms and just recently released the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 with much fanfare. However, something conspicuously absent from these proposed reforms is more academic freedom.

Academic freedom of expression is extremely low in Malaysia.

There are two parts to the concept.

The first is about institutional freedom where a university should be autonomous, with full accountability, where the university administration is free to make independent decisions about mission, governance, hiring of academic leaders, academic and non-academic staff, selecting students, and introducing new programs and courses.

The second aspect is individual academic freedom, where there is a climate promoting freedom to teach what an academic thinks is right, freedom of expression within the public domain on issues, freedom to associate with others, with integrity.

In Malaysian public universities today, both staff and students are formally forbidden, except with permission from their respective vice-chancellors, to express opinions publicly, write about, or organise or participate in forums about politics, religion (particularly Islam) and education. They are not allowed to criticise their own institutions.

The ministry has given directives that no staff should talk to the media on sensitive issues without permission. This ban does not just include the areas mentioned above, but also environmental issues like haze.

The Malaysian Bar Association claims that this directive breaches Section 10 of the Malaysian Constitution guaranteeing free speech.

In addition to the formal directives, informal bans exist on research and discussion about ethnic conflict and local corruption, especially if research findings might raise questions about government policy.

Sanctions for violating these rules and norms range from rebukes from administrators, to the loss of jobs through the non-renewal of work contracts, to prosecution in the court system through sedition laws, etc.

The use of teaching contracts is particularly powerful in curbing free speech of academics, where academics fear they will not get extensions if they don’t carry favour with administrators.

Malaysian academics even need permission from the vice-chancellor to attend any conference and travel outside their own state within Malaysia.

All university staff and students are required to swear allegiance to the Barisan Nasional government, rather than the constitution of Malaysia or the Agong.

They must promise to follow directions of their immediate superiors and the government of the day without question or criticism.

Some academics tried to oppose the swearing of allegiance to the government a few years ago, to no avail.

The fact is, today Malaysian public universities don’t make independent decisions about their respective missions, hiring of academic leaders, and recruitment of staff, student intake, and the introduction of new programmes and courses. This is still completely in the hands of the ministry.

The Education Ministry strictly controls what courses any university may offer, and all curriculum must be approved prior to teaching.

The ministry has even specified some compulsory subjects that must be taken by all students in Malaysia such as Asian Civilization and Malay Studies. Some argue these subjects are controversial in the religious views put forward.

Malaysian universities are part of the apparatus of government rather than being an independent source of ideas and policy.

There have been numerous cases where students and academics have faced intimidation and other sanctions, including prosecution for expression in the media or organising events which university administrators don’t like.

Recently at the International Islamic University near Kuala Lumpur, two students were given a one-year suspension each for organising a meeting on campus where an opposition politician was invited to speak.

Earlier this year, Dr Khoo Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer in the Department of International and Strategic Studies at Universiti Malaya (UM), was put under criminal investigation for possible violation of defamation laws, after she wrote an article in The Malaysian Insider titled “Who owns the police?”

Late in 2014, eight students from UM faced disciplinary proceedings for their involvement in a rally on campus for the then Malaysian opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Dr Abdul Aziz Bari, a law professor at Universiti Selangor (Unisel), was charged with sedition over his statements and articles written about the constitutional limitations and powers of the Sultan of Selangor.

Another academic, Dr Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer from UM, was also charged with sedition after commenting publicly about the constitutional crisis in Selangor.

A group of students from UM last year faced disciplinary action after they protested against the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) during a visit by US President Barack Obama to the campus.

Just recently, all staff and students were warned not to attend the Bersih 4 rally held around Malaysia on August 29 and 30.

And the list goes on.

Most academics fear the consequences and repercussions of speaking out about public issues, unless their views are favourable to the BN government. Cooperation with opposition held governments in Kelantan and Penang is also taboo. Most academics choose to remain silent.

However, one of the more disturbing things is that some local academics go out of their way to apologise for the lack of academic freedom in pseudo-research, where for example, the issue with academic freedom with academic responsibility would be linked, making an underlying assumption that academics cannot be trusted to be academically responsible.

This is probably best epitomised by a comment by a Malaysian academic “Alang Ahmad” on the Scholars and Researchers for Academic Freedom in Malaysia (Saraf) on Facebook, where he said:

“Sorry, we UiTM lecturers owe our livelihood to the BN govt. Besides unity of Malays has greater importance than the silly wishes of some juveniles” (November 25, 2011).

Some academics have followed their superiors’ agenda by creating research that supports government ideas and points of view like Ketuanan Melayu. Such a case was where the academic from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (USM) used an extended concept of “Nam Tien”, a term used to refer to the migration from the Red river delta to the Mekong Delta during the 11th and 18th century to argue that the Malay race has for thousands of years been a target of invasion, due to envy by other races.

Even more disturbing is the reluctance of university academics to speak out against their superiors, leaving the door open for university management to mismanage and flaunt the system financially.

The author was told by a state director of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) that he has tried for years to get university staff to report their superiors for corruption, but been unable to get anybody to stand forward and make a formal report.

Dr Ibrahim Ahmad, the deputy vice-chancellor if Inti-Laureate International University claims that the Malays are “cultural prisoners” and are not courageous in speaking out due to the norms of society.

He goes on to say that this weakness is allowing extremism to creep in and preventing Malays advancing.

Public universities in Malaysia are heavily politicised. All vice-chancellors are selected by the Ministry of Education and personally appointed by the minister. Some vice-chancellors have close connections with the Biro Tata Negara (BTN), an organisation that has been heavily criticised for its villainous brainwashing, racism, and propaganda.

It appears the most important qualification of a vice-chancellor is his/her loyalty to the BN government, rather than academic and administrative abilities.

In addition, very few deans and office bearers are elected by lecturers within the faculties, so these leaders tend not to be accountable to their staff, giving them wide powers. These people tend to be loyal to their superiors and thus academics are under close scrutiny of their activities.

According to the highly cited US expert on education Dr Philip Altmbach, it is difficult to see how a fully developed higher education system can be developed without academic freedom.

In the light of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s promise to give universities more autonomy, intellectual and academic freedom should be issues at the top of the list. However with the current crackdown on free speech, academic freedom is only likely to receive lip service in the near future.

If good policy is going to be scripted, corruption fought, and critical thinking and creativity developed in Malaysia’s universities, a paradigm shift in academic freedom is necessary.

The academic values of autonomy, freedom of expression, and integrity have been largely ignored, at the plight of university standards in Malaysia.

Although Malaysia has globalised its education system, it is still encumbered by Malay cultural norms that are preventing evolution of higher education institutions to their best potential.

In wider society, if academic freedom doesn’t exist, how can freedoms exist elsewhere within the nation?

This is the dilemma hindering the potential of the country to progress today.

The lack of academic freedom weakens the national intellect, which can be witnessed by Malaysia’s relative decline among its neighbours over the last decade.

Malaysian universities may have modern infrastructure, but they are hindered from growing by the current inability of academics to speak out. – October 5, 2015.

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