A multiversity called CAP

IN 1969 the second Malaysian university was established in the north known as Universiti Pulau Pinang. It was later renamed Universiti Sains Malaysia. Under the dynamic inaugural vice-chancellorship of Tan Sri Hamzah Sendut, UPP made its mark worldwide with many firsts to its name. I was privileged to be among its pioneer students.

Little did I know then that there was another organisation in the making at the same time. Soon enough I got entangled with it in my search for a balanced education.

In a short time, the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) took its rightful place in society, led by SM Mohamed Idris as its president. Like USM it too has many firsts to its name, perhaps more. Indeed I was fortunate to be a student of both institutions right from their inception.

In more ways than one, CAP seemed to be the type of "university" that I had been preparing for. It is community-based and people-oriented, fiercely independent (autonomous), "real" and "engaged" with issues of the day, passionate and inclusive. Conventional universities were then proud "ivory towers" and "elitist". Only in recent years have they managed to shake off the stubborn old image and tried to adopt many of the ones that CAP is known for.

Meanwhile, while CAP continues to take on bigger and more globally relevant issues affecting humanity, universities seemed to have fallen back to their "ivory tower" days thanks to "rankers" and their commercially-driven numbers game. Humanity is not part of the criteria.

CAP launched itself with a mission "to promote and strive for a more ecologically sound and socially just society" – lending a voice to the little people. This remains unmatched by the universities.

In 1982, the minister of environment, Datuk Stephen Yong visited CAP and attributed the reason for the ministry's formation to CAP – a singular honour that put CAP in a class of its own ahead of the time. In the same year CAP proved its mantle when it vehemently "spoke up" for the farmers of Thean Teik Estate in Penang against the "big" boys.

The rest is history as CAP touched more hearts and minds in an honest, sincere, and direct way. CAP became a household name nationwide and even globally as the icon in the fight for ecological and social justice. Something that was sadly missing then and even now at tertiary institutions where the next generation of "consumers" are "taught" often at cross-purposes as human capital.

I benefited (and still do) from the best of both worlds. Maybe more from CAP because its concerns are just a pulse away and well-contextualised in terms of co-learning.

Their concerns are not textbook stuff (especially when most are "imported" laced with alien orientation and worldview) with local and indigenous wisdom adding value to the search for the most appropriate solution at hand. CAP walks its talk.

Its call to "think global, act local" resonates well with activists who devote their lives (literally) to CAP to the extent that they are able to articulate a comprehensive localised narrative in contrast to those with vested interests. Often it is an eye-opener to the latter who are fixated on civilising the world. But for CAP the process is reversed – differentiating it from the "world-class" institutions that prefer to "copy" rather than be "original" in order to slavishly remain so.

In a nutshell, CAP by any standard is a "university" in its own right based on 50 years of contributing and pioneering a whole new (original) body of knowledge that is truly "translational" in character – something that universities have just been instructed to do recently with mixed feelings.

I would venture to argue that CAP is beyond that – it is a multiversity – for being able to connect the dots far and wide not only local to global, but also theory to practice, past to future, people to leader, the young to the elder, hi-touch to hi-tech, passion to (just) action while staying clear of corrupt and unethical practices with unwavering courage and resilience. And with a deep-rooted sense of accountability as well as respect in keeping with the trust invested by the little people that it seeks to humbly serve over the last five decades and counting.

The time has come for others to discard their blinkers and learn from CAP how to stay ahead of the curve in igniting an "education revolution" (think Pak Lah); not just to reform or reimagine one. In so doing the ministry will gain enormous unique Malaysian "expertise" from bodies like CAP, Makna and Mercy (to name a few) in expanding Malaysian-led vistas and putting Malaysia on the map as a true world leader.

The writer greatly benefited from the CAP philosophy, its unique and courageous ways in the bid to make USM an APEX status university in 2008 and reliving the USM motto "We (Truly) Lead". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com