June 20, 2015
Universiti Malaya is not The University of Malaya and Why
by *Ooi Kok Hin@www.themalaysianinsider.com
*Ooi Kok Hin graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy. He is also the author of the book, “Aku Kafir, Kau Siapa” , published by DuBook Press.
Student Activists Demand Resignation of Public University Vice Chancellors
The three ladies on duty were friendly and helpful. My interest in Universiti Malaya lies in the special place that this institution occupies in our history. This is the institution that once resided the likes of Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas, Dr. Syed Husin Ali, and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Although it has been said that the university is a pale shadow of its former self, one can still feel the presence of its historic greatness in the campus. I had a two-hour gap before attending a talk, so I walked to Perdana Siswa which houses the university’s bookstore.
Pekan Buku, as it is called, is something like a small shop lot. Though there is a few rare books available in the bookstore, I feel as if the bookstore is not fitting for a premier institution that Universiti Malaya is. There are many academic textbooks and trade paperbacks, but current affairs books are lacking and outdated.
The section which is dedicated to the university’s own publication is a sad embarrassment.Either the university academics do not publish much or the university press has not communicated well with the university bookstore.
The “Malaysiana” section, along with the social sciences and humanities, are relegated to the back of the bookstore. It is not a conducive place in which an avid reader would spend hours browsing and reading books.
I bought a book titled “Dua Wajah: Tahanan Tanpa Bicara”, written by one of the university’s most dedicated scholar, activist, and citizen, Dr. Syed Husin. While he may be more known as the former PKR Deputy President, what I admire about him is his combination of academic rigour and passionate activism.
He himself studied at the university before returning to serve as a professor for nearly 30 years. Unlike many academicians who separates their academic work and servitude to society, Dr Syed Husin wrote a plenty on Malay society (“Orang Melayu: Masalah dan Masa Depan”; “Poverty and Landlessness in Kelantan”; “Ethnic Relations in Malaysia: Harmony and Conflict”) and was actively involved in bringing about change to his society.
It was his efforts in organising student protests in the early 1970s that resulted in him being detained under the Internal Security Act for six years.
If a well-respected and learned professor can be jailed without trial, I wonder how many others fell victim to the cruelty of power. The likes of Dr Syed Husin, who dared to confront the authority with the truth, are sorely missed in today’s Universiti Malaya.
Gone were the days when scholar-activists were willing to give up the luxury of a comfort life and risked being arrested and treated like a common criminal.
It seems to me that professors today, encouraged by the university administrators, are content to write about society, not changing the society, and doing research in air-conditioned rooms, barricaded by university walls and isolated from the society.
I’m not necessarily saying that all scholars ought to confront the government like Dr. Syed did. There are other types of scholar-activists. Royal Professor Ungku Aziz was able to turn his academic research into actual policies.According to the Merdeka Award, “His (Ungku Aziz’s) work was instrumental in spurring governmental rural development programmes aimed at benefiting the impoverished peasants and fisherfolk.
“Among the initiatives proposed by Ungku Aziz was the creation of monopolies to bypass the middlemen who previously acted as the distribution channel of produce to the retail market.
Regardless of whether our professors are pro-government, pro-opposition, or independent, how many of them actually set out to reform the people around them? To help those in need?
When academicians write about poverty, urban transportation, liberty, Maqasid Shariah, the theory of economic growth, or political issues, do they want to make a change or is it just another research paper to be published?
In the evening, I attended a talk themed “Malaysian Higher Education Blueprint: Role of the Universities”. The panelists include Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Professor Tan Sri Dr. Ghauth Jasmon, Professor Datuk Dr. Ibrahim Bajunid, and Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. Isahak Haron.
It’s interesting to see how each panelist emphasised different points in their speech. Dr. Ghauth, the former Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Malaya, begun by stressing the need for financial autonomy, competence and publication to get higher ranking, and good governance.
Inevitably, he said, the government will slash funding for the universities, just as they did with PTPTN student loans.
The universities will have to find their own source of funding. I also find it fascinating that the former Vice-Chancellor publicly stated that the government should not appoint board members and vice-chancellors. Rather, the university deserves the best people to lead the institution.
The rest of the panelists subtly and not-so-subtly disagreed with the former Vice-Chancellor’s emphasis on the need to compete.
Dr. Ong warned that the rankings can be “gamed” by temporarily hiring well-known foreign academicians, who are hugely compensated while actually contributing little.
Dr. Ibrahim’s pertinent point on the gap between the policy designers and implementers strike at the reality of practice. Saifuddin touched on the soul of the university and asked “Are we producing good men or good workers?” The former Deputy Minister of Higher Education agreed with the panellists that political appointments must stop to give way to the best people leading the universities. He also said philosophy should be taught at every faculty!
What I find especially enlightening is the speech by Dr Isahak. He methodically approached the subject of the future of education. Tracing it from past to present trajectory, he argued that in the new reality, universities are not driven by scholars anymore.
Rather, corporate demands assume the quintessential focus of the university today. We talk about employability of the graduates, what the industries want, and what the economy needs. It used to be that university is not driven by market, but by the pursue of knowledge. But we are increasingly moving away from that liberal socio-cultural tradition.
“Now we are very proud to announce and showcase cooperation with foreign universities such as Johns Hopkins, Stanford or Harvard. Once upon a time, we were very proud to develop our own courses, tradition, and studies, ranging from history to Malay literature, the social sciences and humanities.”
To me, that is what we should do. Not rushing to get published in journals which are read by very few people in the society, if at all.
Those “research syiok sendiri” are not contributing and helping. A majority of the people do not care if our professors get published in international journals, or some abstract economic theories. They care about bread and butter issues, the cause and effect of inflation and GST. The role of the scholar, other than the noble pursuit of knowledge, is to bring the knowledge back to the ground, to the people.
The scholar knows something the layman doesn’t. It is hoped that he doesn’t keep that knowledge to himself and carries it to the grave, but rather, he teaches it to the layman so that they both become capable of making informed decisions, political and otherwise.
To paraphrase Eugene Debs, I don’t want to rise above the university, I want to rise with the university. I want to help restore the greatness back to the university. I wish to be part of the generation of students, professors, and administrators that will lift UM to the premier institution it used to be.
We are not talking about numbers and rankings here. What attracted me and many others is never because Universiti Malaya made it to the top 100 or not. Not only the university is an important piece of Malaysian history and produces a great many alumni, Universiti Malaya is history.
When we need to ask why we should be bothered to preserve our history, the question itself reflects a genuine lack of appreciation and sense of belonging. When we feel belonged to a bigger community, we will not think about neglecting our history because the history of a community gives meaning to its very identity.
To neglect Universiti Malaya is to neglect history. I sincerely hope that the university will be restored to its glorious days.This can probably only be done by taking the best care of the university community (students, academicians, staff, and administrators) and providing the most conducive learning environment to them.
The best way for the student to learn is also the best way for the university to develop – free, creative, encouraging, dedicated, and hopeful.
The mission to restore to Universiti Malaya to its former glory within this generation will need all the help it can get. And oh, somebody please upgrade the bookstore.