IT was most refreshing when Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik announced that the government intended to restore academic freedom of intellectual engagement and expression. The public universities would no longer restrict political discourse on campus. He even suggested the possibility of having political parties on campus.
In short, he wants to unshackle and dismantle the caveats imposed on the intellectual mind that was in force during the previous government. The previous government not only shackled intellectual engagement outside the standard research/teaching responsibility but manipulated some members of the academic community to promote its political agenda.
One such entity was the National Professors’ Council, which should have promoted academic excellence and the welfare of the lecturers. It had instead become the political arm of the previous government. Top management of public universities were chosen according to their political correctness instead of academic excellence and managerial expertise.
This was done to ensure that the universities toe the official line. Those who dared criticise the government ran the risk of being put on the backburners and not being considered for promotion. The academic community was coerced and fell silent in the face of official corruption and malfeasance.
This prompted Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to lament the reticence of the academic community to the colossal corruption perpetrated by former leaders.
However, not all members of the academic community are concerned with proper governance and wellbeing of the community. Most of them are ensconced in their comfort zone of academic silos focusing mainly on research and teaching.
Those who ventured to critically appraise policies and malfeasance were hauled up and told to fall in line and toe government policies.
Even after the minister’s announcement of academic freedom of expression and association, there are still top management of universities who instruct academics to concentrate on academic work and refrain from criticising government policies even though the appraisals may provoke thought that may affect policy changes.
Such university management are more concerned with their status and position rather than abiding by the universal dictum that the university pursue knowledge that not only reveals the phenomenology of existence but more important to challenge accepted traditions and norms in addition to providing perspectives.
It is high time that the top management of universities revert to the ethos of academia rather than indulge in political sycophancy to please the powers that be. They must have the courage and fortitude to support their academics who think outside the box and contradict the status quo.
The universities can no longer work in silos; they should be the voice of the people by providing new ideas and knowledge as well as inculcating their charges with critical, inquisitive and ethical minds that challenge the norms and traditions in the quest for truth.
Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin
Centre for Policy Research and International Studies
University Sains Malaysia