Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

We Do Not Have Academic Freedom

Written by johnleemk on 3:40:00 pm Aug 6, 2007.
Categories: ,

This last weekend, I attended the inaugural Malaysian Student Leaders Summit at the Nikko Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. I have to say it was quite an experience — it was the first time I have personally seen so many prominent personalities.

Today, the New Straits Times surprisingly carried a story on how the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya, Rafiah Salim, was booed by hundreds of students. (The NST of course conveniently overlooked how Khairy Jamaluddin was booed they day before when it was announced he was present, but then again, only half a dozen of us were booing.)

Of course, there was a lot more to the summit than this, and I think a lot of those who were not at the summit have already begun misunderstanding and misrepresenting the issues. (In all fairness, some of those who were at the summit, including the NST, are partially to blame.)

Rafiah Salim was there with Professor Khoo Kay Kim to speak on the topic of "unity in diversity". She said a number of pertinent and sensible things regarding this issue, and I think it's a bit of a shame that she wasted the goodwill she earned here through some of the drivel she said in the questions and answers session.

Things got interesting when someone broached the subject of freedom of expression for students. Rafiah opened by asking what we were doing speaking there, if we did not have freedom of speech.

That was of course a bunch of bullshit. Throughout the entire summit, every time some "sensitive issue" was broached, before you knew it, the subject of the Special Branch and repressive laws came up. (For this reason, I will avoid giving specifics about any of the students I talked to, lest they fear reprisals.) Afterwards when I talked with a friend and criticised Rafiah's comments, he suggested we drop the topic in case we were overheard by the SB.

Is that freedom to voice your concerns? Do we have such freedom when we censor ourselves, when we refuse to say what we think about our academics and our ministers because we fear repression? The existence of a "chilling effect" has been well-documented, and it is absolutely stupendous that Rafiah Salim would not even think of this.

But that was not the statement that earned her the infamous booing. It was her insistence that students do have the right to voice their concerns that riled up the students.

You might argue that the booing was unjustified and not civil at all. That is what she said — that such incidents are what make people fretful about granting us the right to express ourselves, but we do have this right anyway.

However, at the same summit, after every speech and often in the middle of every speech, there were instances of applause where we showed our approval of certain remarks. This makes me wonder — why is it that we are allowed and encouraged to voice our opinion when it jibes with what the establishment has to say, but that when we take the negative equivalent of clapping (i.e. booing), we are being rude and unjustified in our actions? If we don't like something, are we supposed to shut up about it?

Rafiah also defended the Universities and University Colleges Act, saying that students need not be activists. If such is the case, I wonder why Malaysian students overseas are encouraged to join things like Kelab UMNO. Mahathir Mohamad himself was an activist in his student days, penning criticisms of the status quo. How could she make such a blanket generalisation?

Rather than asking, "Is there anything right with being an activist?" we should be asking "Is there anything wrong with being an activist?" How does standing up for what you believe in contradict the goal of academia, to learn the truth and to propagate it?

Two other people spoke that day on similar issues — the Higher Education Minister, Mustapa Mohamed, and an author of the Zahid Report on higher education. Both faced similarly tough questions on freedom of speech, and answered them only slightly less badly than Rafiah.

Tok Pa, the Higher Education Minister, was asked by a student, "Why is it that we are encouraged to attend meetings of Kelab Umno, but when people like Anwar Ibrahim give a speech we are asked not to attend?"

How did the Minister respond? His response was basically equivalent to, "We welcome all opinions, but they must be objective. Some people are not objective in their views, so it is better not to listen to them." In the first place, how can the government be an objective arbiter? Can the Prime Minister objectively assess himself? Can anyone do that? Why not leave it to the students to decide who has been objective and who is being unfair?

Later, I believe Zahid took a question on the controversial UUCA and the just as controversial Akujanji, which is the scourge of many Malaysian academics. The question was never answered. Zahid had no answer. He moved on to another topic.

Let's not even look at the students. I doubt the students have more academic freedom than the faculty. How are the faculty treated? My literature lecturer in a private college was scared to death of drawing analogies between King Lear and Malaysian politics. She is not subject to either the UUCA or the Akujanji. How can those forced to submit to these documents be more free than she is?

At the summit, I attended a small group discussion on education. A student shared with us the story of a famous academic at the International Islamic University Malaysia who made the mistake of supporting Anwar Ibrahim. After IIUM sacked him in the wake of Anwar's own sacking, they decided they had not gone far enough, so they felled all the trees planted by this academic.

That is the level of pettiness and oppression Malaysian academia has come down to. Face the facts, Rafiah Salim. If faculty don't have the right to voice their concerns, can we really say the same for students? You may personally promote freedom of expression, but does the system tolerate dissenting and diverging views? The fact is, it does not.


Andrew Loh writes:

I was the (first) guy who asked about the UUCA to Zahid, and what he did was basically explain very honestly, in my opinion, that the report deadline was 6 months and so the committee did not have enough time to go into legal matters/recommendations. What the report contained was recommendations that laws concerning tertiary education should be revisited and amended if necessary.

I accepted the answer, and I don't think it was sidestepping. A better question should have been "What do you think personally, sir?"

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