University ranking and intellectual honesty

By AB Sulaiman | Oct 10, 2011

The Times Higher Education World University Ranking has recently announced the results of its survey and the ranking of universities from all over the world for 2011-2012.

In the past, some of our universities have done modestly well, slotted in the low 200 -300 positions.

But for the first time, none did any better than 400 this year. We Malaysians have every right to be stumped. What has gone miserably, pathetically, pitifully wrong?

We all know that in this country, education as an institution has broken down, but surely not this badly!

Many concerned citizens like (DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, usually the first to highlight the issue to the public domain) have voiced their opinions.

They cite the application of the quota system, Malay-only vice-chancellors policy or practice, poor funding for research, etc.

But here I am not about to collate or reiterate and summarise these reasons, plausible as they might be.

Rather, I wish to present another and more fundamental explanation that might have escaped the attention of commentators.

The reason to me is that our collective approach to higher learning is off tangent from universal practice in that it encourages and nurtures close-mindedness and not open-minded thinking.

A quick check with the visions and missions of three top ranking universities namely Harvard, Cambridge and the National University of Singapore, would amply substantiate this point.

Harvard and Cambridge are consistently among the top ten, while the NUS hovers at around the forties or higher. They are among the crème de la crème of world universities.

First, Harvard. Its webpage says:

‘Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities. To these ends, the college encourages students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought; to pursue excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions. Harvard seeks to identify and to remove restraints on students’ full participation, so that individuals may explore their capabilities and interests and may develop their full intellectual and human potential.’

Note some key governing phrases, namely ‘to respect ideas and their free expression’, ‘to rejoice in discovery and critical thought’, and ‘to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions’.

Cambridge University has its own mission statement as well:

‘The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.’

This university’s core values are as follows: Freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.

NUS in its turn aspires to be ‘a bold and dynamic community, with a “no walls” culture and a spirit of enterprise that strives for positive influence and impact through our education, research and service’.

All three universities seem to have virtually the same vision and mission namely to make their students to think openly and even courageously.

These august institutions are aware that the human mind works best when it is free from encumbrances and pre-determined parameters, or the ‘walls’ of NUS. They know that only with this complete and total freedom can the mind explore the smallest atoms and the farthest reaches of the universe.

Their approach to learning thereby is to develop and encourage original cutting edge thinking, of daring to explore, of initiative and creativity, of developing an open mind free from conservatism, conformity, prejudice, myth and dogma.

Wrong vision

I believe our universities are not looking into education in this time-tested way.

For this I’d highlight the vision and mission statement of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Its charter says it seeks to protect the sanctity and supremacy of God, and to put theory into practice.

It also strives to promote the Malay language. I remember reading about this some time ago. A quick check on its webpage indicates this vision is basically unchanged.

A closer examination of this vision indicates that this university does not teach its students to ‘respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought’ as articulated by high achieving universities like Harvard.

Instead it stresses its students to protect the sanctity of Islam, and to champion the rebirth or strengthening of the Malay language and culture.

Now, I have nothing against the protection of Islam or any religion. Nor do I have any aversion to the vision of nurturing the health of the Malay language and culture.

Only that they are far and away from open, objective and critical thinking.

Instead, this thinking puts encumbrances and limitations to the pursuit of ‘excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions.’ They are in fact the symptoms of the closed or ethnocentric mind.

In a nutshell UKM does not go for truth, but instead for what the authorities want the truth to be. It does not go for intellectual honesty.

No analysis is encouraged, but what is encouraged is the passive acceptance of past wisdom and prejudices.

All these do not promote proper thinking, but they propagate value judgments: prejudices, doctrines and dogmas, speculations. They are discriminatory.

History written by the victors

The present issue of history text books would amply illustrate this government-sponsored ‘truth’ and its agenda of pushing for this truth to the minds of the younger generation.

To the authorities, history is to be written by the victors and they have rewritten school texts to suit the government’s ‘victorious’ views.

History is to be made a compulsory subject in schools thus forcing the young to absorb and internalise these doctored views.

To reiterate I have no qualms about any person championing the welfare and well-being of his race or religion, for I suppose any reasonable person would have an affinity and love for his race and religion.

But this should remain as a personal trait and remain there. To make it into an overt university vision and mission statement is too much. Why? Because by doing so the university is consciously and deliberately propagating racial and religious preferences.

Race and religion are emotive and subjective and are far and away from objective principles.

It becomes understandable to state that UKM does not educate its students in intellectual honesty, but instead its antithesis i.e. intellectual deviousness and dishonesty.

It is for this that I feel no Malaysian universities are ranked among the top in the world, but instead will slide down further and further as the years go by. I think they deserve this.

I might be accused of being anti-Malay and anti-Islam for saying the above. My detractors and critics might counter by saying that surely Malaysian university education is not all that bad?

For this I refer to two articles written by Susan Loone in Malaysiakini on Oct 6. The first is her report on a presentation made by Professor Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin, former mufti of Perlis and an outspoken critic of conservative and conformist Islam.

“Professor Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin has attributed the lack of intellectual development in the Malay community to the ‘restrictions imposed by the authorities’ on their freedom of thought and expression”, writes Loone.

She continued by quoting Mohd Asri (left) as saying that “Knowledge should not be dependent on political power as control of people’s thoughts can ‘kill’ intellectual discourse.”

Mohd Asri said if the authorities continue to “control and direct” intellectual content, the rakyat would never be able to obtain the right facts.

Loone’s second article carries the headline ‘Historian: We are trapped in an intellectual coffin’.

This time according to her, a Malaysian historian (Ariffin Omar, a lecturer) bemoaned the disappearance of cultural and political freedom as reasons for the stagnation of the nation’s intellectual development.

Omar said (Loone writes further) that a nation needs a healthy dose of culture, politics and knowledge if it wants a steady growth of intellectual discourse from issues ranging from mainstream to ones considered ‘sensitive’.

“But what happens here is that when you speak your mind, you are persecuted as a traitor of the nation. Why is there no maturity in politics?” he queried.

The two thinkers have bravely and frankly voiced out this glaring weakness and we owe them a vote of thanks for speaking out.

In addition we should thank Loone for her part in sharing and spreading their views to the public domain. For my part I am assuming she ‘allows’ me to virtually reproduce her work here and to thank her for it.

Decay of intellectualism

The country is suffering from the stagnation and decay of intellectualism which in turn is reflected in the poor showing of Malaysian universities in the THE survey.

We see the products and symptoms of this stagnation and decay every day, as highlighted by the following short list:

  1. Incompetence instead of professionalism in the public workplace. The ratio of civil servants to the population is among the highest in the world.

  2. Intellectual dishonesty instead of personal integrity. A Judge for example is under public suspicion for plagiarising a judgment. The breaking down of the rule of law and the rise in corruption are other illustrations.

  3. Fracture and cleavage in between different ethnic groups. The Malays are asserting their ‘Malayness’ at the expense of the other ethnic groups.

  4. Religious intolerance. The leaders are determined to implement hudud law despite the constitutional objections to such a ruling.

It’s painful to add more into this list although it’s too easy to do so.

To conclude, a friend, Paul Laine, from Finland, imparted to me a saying from his country: ‘The rotting of a fish starts from the head’.

I remember this now as I see the rot in the university education producing mediocre leaders who then drag the country intellectually downhill. Thanks Paul, for your wisdom.
AB SULAIMAN is an observer of human traits and foibles, especially within the context of religion and culture. As a liberal, he marvels at the way orthodoxy fights to maintain its credibility in a devilishly fast-changing world. He hopes to provide some understanding to the issues at hand and wherever possible, suggest some solutions. He holds a Bachelor in Social Sciences (Leicester, UK) and a Diploma in Public Administration, Universiti Malaya.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:07 am

    Mentri MOHE explained 2day
    “We know that if we participated, we will not even make it into the Times top 400 university rankings because we are new, we need to wait until our research really matured.”
    “It’s not that we have been assessed and disqualified… [but] our elements of research are just too young and immature [to make the list].”

    Great, at least he admitted dat our local Us r not world class
    But d reason he gave is partially NOT ACCEPTABLE: UM is NOT TOO YOUNG (e.g., compared to Monash U, established in 1958), but our local Us are certainly too immature, all bcos of d race/NEP rules imposed by UmnoB over the last 40 years
    He shld admit dat UmnoB has FAILED d nation by messing our education system

  2. #2 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:29 am

    /// The reason to me is that our collective approach to higher learning is off tangent from universal practice in that it encourages and nurtures close-mindedness and not open-minded thinking.

    A quick check with the visions and missions of three top ranking universities namely Harvard, Cambridge and the National University of Singapore, would amply substantiate this point. ///

    I think this is barking up the wrong tree. Even if the Malaysian universities come up with the most highfalutin vision and mission statements, it will still come to naught if the VCs are mediocre and the students are sub-standards. Garbage in garbage out. More so if those who are supposed to be mentors and professors are of questionable quality.

  3. #3 by Godfather on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:30 am

    ‘The rotting of a fish starts from the head’

    Isn’t this a copyrighted MCA quotation ?

  4. #4 by Godfather on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:32 am

    Our universities are famous, so famous that Africans and Arabs all try to come to our shores. Even the poorer mainland Chinese want to come to our local universities for IT courses – probably on how to imitate, copy, distribute, bribe, whatever.

  5. #5 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 12:06 pm

    We achieved political independence 54 years ago but our minds are still shackled and imprisoned. When will we achieve the Merdeka of the mind? Where are the freedom fighters for intellectual freedom?

  6. #6 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 12:19 pm

    Even porntip’s university(mahidol) is ranked better that macc lawyer goon. Strangle himself then jump. Must have graduated from university of joker Malaysia. ranked 2nd from the bottom, after the university of corruption Malaysia.

  7. #7 by passerby on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 12:20 pm

    Ultimately you need the best professors and the best student before you can start talking of the standard of the U. Like they said, garbage in and garbage out.

  8. #8 by Godfather on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 12:22 pm

    Country and institutions run by intellectually bankrupt people.

  9. #9 by monsterball on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 12:37 pm

    The formulas used by UMNO b are stale and out dated.
    Malaysians are ready to change govt.
    Have we not had enough of double talks…hypocrites….braggarts who know next to nothing but have big mouths to keep talking nonsense…just because they have actually succeeded to control large portion of minds through decades of corruptions…encouraging one race to keep doing that?
    We have established they are not God fearing politicians….simply the dirtiest and most corrupted lot.
    And to continue the success….you expect UMNO b to seriously be concern with better educations for advancements of young minds?
    The day our Education system keep improving will spell the end of UMNO b.
    And it is spelling the end of UMNO b through young Malaysians better educations….elsewhere…mixing with all races…and get real educated through Internet….not from Govt. schools..with bunkun racists teachers…all chosen.. holding high positions.
    Change the Govt.
    Actions speak louder than words.

  10. #10 by shakarul on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 12:46 pm

    Dr M, what say you? Or you prefer to say, “I have forgotten how I implemented the educational system while I was PM”.

  11. #11 by k1980 on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 1:16 pm

    //‘The rotting of a fish starts from the head’.//

    Saifool Bookhali, be very careful about your “fish” down under……when its head starts rotting, yell for your fat mama

  12. #12 by trublumsian on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 3:20 pm

    now the malaysian universities will focus on churning out boat loads of “researches”, top priority so we have the numbers. tip: take an established article, change the first and last words and here you go! umno will make sure the professors will score them As and will make sure 70% (quota) of these so-called researches are done by the bumis.

  13. #13 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 3:20 pm

    I much agree with what AB Sulaiman says about our education esp tertiary education system that is not concerned with development of thinking person. It fact it contrives to stultify the mental development for political expedience. What many high ranking universities strive to do (not necessarily successful) is to develop minds by balance between (i) making them structured and disciplined in thinking and at same time (ii) encouraging flexibility, creativity and openess of thought/ideas. Of course imparting information, especially latest, and improving literacy/eloquence of expression whether in writing or verbal is also part of it besides imparting values of scholarship, honesty of thought etc. By these standards – which I will call universally accepted ‘academic/tertiary standards’ we fare badly amd will continue to get worse if the focus is on Ketuanan as a raison de etre of UMNO’s preservation of power.

  14. #14 by trublumsian on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 3:25 pm

    what do you expect? jibby, moomoo, hishhish, none of these clowns can hold their own in a debate even if their lives depend on it. don’t make them watch the american game show “Are you smarter than a 5th grader” lest they despair and go jump from the 5th floor.

  15. #15 by tsng on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 4:27 pm

    All those who support PPSMI as an option in Sek. Kebangsaan please join this group.

  16. #16 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 4:29 pm

    The only small qualification I wish to make on AB Sulaiman’s excellent observations is his comment “Country is suffering from the stagnation and decay of intellectualism which in turn is reflected in the poor showing of Malaysian universities in the THE survey.” I wouldn’t draw a strict connection between high ranking THE’s universities training and “intellectualism”. Some overlapping of the two yes but strict connection, not to me at least. As I said in earlier posting, the high ranking unversities are associated more with universally perception of what constitutes rigorous and high “acadamic/tertiary standards” which are not necessarily synonymous with intellectualism, unless one uses the term loosely! Intellectualism connotes not just a liberal integrated bent of mind but also a moral and civic bias for contemporary public issues of the day. Intellectualism is not necessarily inculcated by Ivy leaque universities or nature of jobs but a temper of mind evinced by the manner in which intellectuals act, the way they see themselves, and the values that they uphold. The Author AB Sulaiman for eg would be such a Malaysian public intellectual but he need not not necessarily be educated in Cambridge, Harvard, NUS or other high ranking universities. At the same time there are those graduated from these high ranking universities who in spite of their rigorous academic/tertiary’s training will sell their soul to the powers that be and be their mouth piece! I need not tell you who they are.

  17. #17 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 7:23 pm

    Study d academic profiles/records of VCs n DVCs of our public Us, d answer is there

  18. #18 by cintanegara on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 8:23 pm

    LGE graduated from Monash University
    Anthony Loke graduated from UKM
    Teresa Kok graduated from USM
    Fong Po Kuan graduated from UIA
    LKS – not sure

    Those universities are not part of top 10 or top 20 universities in the World…..that’s why their quality of leadership is very very doubtful……Look at what happened in Penang….

  19. #19 by tak tahan on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 10:23 pm

    Like you more better lor..a graduate from Tanjong cock now and then but call yourself cintanegara?

  20. #20 by waterfrontcoolie on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 10:38 pm

    Cintanegara, which Uni are you from? The truth is in the eating of the pudding. Graduating from top Universities does give one the advantage in starting life. Thereafter, success or failure is all yours. Based on students who graduated from the TOP Universities, their lecturers/professors of quality made the difference; not by spoon feeding but by drawing your thought through a thinking process. To be able to qualify to such instituitions is by itself an achievement. They will have a head start but NO Guarantee of eternal success!
    To be good and sincere leaders does not need a degree from any hallo insituition; hence Cintanegara need not ask aboput LKS who did his external London law degree, I believe. Truth cannot be hidden behind half-truth; in the top insituitions either you make it you don’t. We have said so much about local institutes of higher learning, which has been designed each year to be of a lower standard than the previous one solely because of political expediency. the issue facing us will be: how much longer can we sustain? before we hit the bottom!

  21. #21 by passerby on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:32 pm

    Cintanegara, had they gone to the top universities, the results would be much more spectacular. Even with that qualifications from those Us, they have done very well than their counterparts.

    Look at LKY, he qualified from Cambridge and see what he had done to the little dot and compare to what your mamak had done to Malaysia?

  22. #22 by dagen on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:56 pm

    This author talks about top universities having great mottos. Oh is that what it takes to be good? Umno can certainly do a good job at sloganeering.

  23. #23 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 10:11 am

    ///Look at LKY, he qualified from Cambridge and see what he had done to the little dot and compare to what your mamak had done to Malaysia?///

    As I said there is no need to connect moral/civic intellectualism with high ranking universities. The ‘Mamak’, information minister Rais Yatim, Dr Chandra Muzaffar just like Jelutong lion Karpal Singh qualified from same quite high world ranking university – Univerity of S’pore that later changed name to NUS – and Khairy Jamaluddin, from Oxford. So what does that connection prove?

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