Universiti Malaya is not The University of Malaya and Why

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.


UMThe taxi driver dropped me off at the Institute of Graduate Studies. I went in to ask  about the postgraduate programme.

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 There are many academic textbooks and trade paperbacks, but current affairs books are lacking and outdated.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section which is dedicated to the university’s own publication is a sad embarrassment.Either the university academics do not publish much or the university press has not communicated well with the university bookstore.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.

Dr Syed Husin Ali2He 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.

Chung Tat LimIt 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.

Ungku Aziz“Ungku Aziz has constantly sought to improve the level of opportunities available to the rural community, and many of his other achievements stem from his work on poverty eradication.”

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.

29 thoughts on “Universiti Malaya is not The University of Malaya and Why

  1. I visited UM the first time in 1970 and have been to Malaysia on and off about once every three years. Last time I visited the campus was about five years. In 1970, it was like a paradise (albeit after the 1969 race riot). Last time, it was like a run-down slum. The piece of water (a lake or a pond) was filled with muddy water. How fast has the country gone down-hill. Cry my beloved country.

  2. The deteriorating physical landscape of the University is a reflection of the country i.e. down the hill. What more does one need to prove? From being at par with University of Singapore in the 60s, where is it now? Just like the Malaysian Ringgit when it was RM1=S1 in 60s and 70s, what’s the rate now? All falling down like Jack and Jill

  3. It’s the perennial debate over the role of the university in society.

    Like it or not, world university rankings do matter. High ranking ones attract the best scholars and researchers, the brightest students — from all around the world. Fortunately, we also have rising universities outside of North America and Europe. We just need to remember to take these rankings as a rough guide of RELATIVE quality.

    Universities can serve the social good or be used by ruling regimes for bad purposes.

    The good — education that broadens minds and promotes citizen participation in good governance, trains a high quality workforce, contributes to technological advancement, social mobility for bright students from poor families (e.g. free university education in the Scandinavian welfare states), a cultural repository as well as haven for culture creators

    The bad — professors who serve as intellectually dishonest paid propagandists for repressive regimes, incubators of destructive ideologies (e.g. anti-Semitism of German university professors around the beginning of the 20th century, paving the way for Nazism later on), preservers of privilege (e.g. students come only from upper classes or certain ethnic groups because university fees are too high or ethnic minorities are discriminated against in terms of admission).

  4. TS Prof G. Jasmon is absolutely right, in that MU has to stand on its own legs – when it comes to academic freedom and financial autonomy. Many of the Goons have no love for this venerable, if decrepit alma mater of mine, although many still regard it as the premier varsity. There is inbred jealousy especially from those who were bred with ‘lesser’ pedigree.

    It’s environs are a reflection of our national politics, but it’s entry requirements remain stringent – at least on the superficial level. Many of the brightest, would, if they have the wherewithal, prefer to pursue their education overseas. That way, the ‘Nons’ would not be coerced to consistently be the top scorers in the compulsory Islamic Civilization studies.

    Yes, Frankie, the lake is now a national disgrace – even water lilies have a hard time thriving there. And the bookshop, which i spent many interesting hours ‘smelling’; has turned into a poor rendition of Mydin Superstore.

    I know that a new team of Advisers have been appointed, who have practical experience to bridge the gap between the academia, commerce and industry. They can help inasmuch as the BoD are willing to carry out their recommendations. We’ll see.

    Here’s something for our alma mater, who has never been an ‘Illusion’:

  5. One more comment: the university should not be a glorified high school where faculty members only teach students (if this is the case, then hiring very bright Bachelor degree holders to teach would suffice. There would be no need for PhDs).

    Faculty members in universities should and must do scholarly research, write scholarly articles and publish scholarly books. Faculty members can be basic science researchers, technology innovators, idea generators, culture creators, or a combination of these (it all depends on the discipline or area of study).

  6. One of the first casualties of Mahathir’s reign of Willful Error was Universiti Malaya though it must be said that the language mischief set afoot by Anwar Ibrahim via PBMUM would have achieved the same, albeit slowly, even if Mahathir had not moved into the Ministry of Education.

    Between 1974 (when the boots of the FRU first stepped across its portal) and 2015, it has been systematically and ruthlessly robbed and stripped of everything that gave it its stature – its teachers of international repute, its formidable thought leadership and academic rigor and the immunity that helped preserve it as a place of ferment and renewal.

    It is now an ‘academic slum’, an irreparably decrepit home to all varieties of riff raff. Restoring it to its former glory is about as possible as boiling the ocean.

    We forget that Anwar Ibrahim did a lot of nonsense when he was with UMNO. He was also a supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the man behind Islamisation in UMNO. After being in prison, he became a liberal democrat and champion of good governance, justice and freedom. People say that he is a political chameleon.

    Today I am embarrassed to tell people that I am a graduate of the University of Malaya, Pantai Valley. If I wish to, I will have to explain to my audience that I was there in 1960-1963. A University is not just bricks and mortar. As you know, I was with The George Washington University (1968-1970). GWU’s academic standing has grown by leaps and bounds since I left its portals. And I am proud to be a Colonial.–Din Merican

  7. It is a shame because UM is rich in history and those who have knowledge of its former glory still subscribe to the notion that there is potential in the university. To me, the primary reason for its downfall would be the politicization of education that has destroyed academic freedom and autonomy. I have met many brilliant minds that are a product of the institution in spite of its bad publicity recently. There must be some good still there, just that it is not enough. Leadership and teamwork play a pivotal role in an academic institution which is something they desperately need to succeed in rankings. In spite of UM8, Azmi Sharom and what not – I have a little optimism that it serves as a lesson for the university to get a hold of themselves and prioritize the quality of education. I hope that the recent controversy over missing assets is solved and manages to do away with the bad apples in their administration so that they can get serious with making real progress.
    Ms. Naidu, thanks and welcome to this blog. I hope to read more comments from you here on.–Din Merican

  8. Good teachers and good students make a good university. A university is a place for research and should not be in the business of producing only graduates who are employable. Their job is to produce the best graduates with the best minds to help in the good governance of the nation bearing in mind that Man is the only species on this planet who can think of one thing and say another.

  9. We are in the same boat Dato, when it comes to acknowledging our links to the place which is still called a university despite what it has become. Like you, I make it a point to say that I was there well before its decline. And yes, with the course of time, not many will remember the version of AI I knew, first in MU and later as UMNO’s Minister of Education when he deftly lubricated the slide into the deep pit our schools and colleges are in.

    But I would like to believe that people, through force of circumstance (and quiet reflection) may change – for the better. AI, like Mahathir, is witness to the holy (read talibanized) mess the country (and education) is in. Even if incarceration has not changed the man’s views, the present state of his handiwork should have stimulated a tinge of regret and a wistful trip down the subjunctive.

  10. I was a product of UM 1982 in Economics and in 1997 for my MBA…. I prefer to just keep it quiet…. shy to tell anybody. When I was in the library, I felt so strange recently, like I was in a different world… little 15-16 year old matriculation girls chewing snacks gossiping and giggling and there I was with a stack of thick books for research…. they must think I am from Mars….

  11. Why?
    Because they can’t or cannot afford to spell correctly,
    but can do so with UMNO= United Malay National Organisation, at all cost and at the expense of the national and people welfare.

  12. I too am a graduate of the University of Malaya but not the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur (MU not UM) – it was the MU in Singapore in the early 1950s.(now the National University of Singapore or NUS). I joined MU in 1959 and helped build it up to what it was up to the early 1970s when MU and its graduates were looked upon with great respect and admiration all over the world. I also helped withthe planning, design, construction and setting up of the Medical Centre in Kuala Lumpur, and helped launch the MBBS programme in 1963 and the Master’s degree programme in medical disciplines in 1974. As Registrar of MU until the early 1970s, administration and academic affairs of the University were under me. The teaching staff then took over most of these areas from 1974 as full-time but pro tem deputy vice-chancellors (2 years at a time) when around the mid 1970s, the services of the full-time teaching staff were badly needed as teaching, research amd in their respectve clinical disciplines.

    As I said, It was from then that MU began to decline as the premier university of Malaysia. I suppose Tun Mahathir as the Minister of Education and Ungku Aziz would be the best persons to explain why tnis was so. Whatever it was my own respect for MU was fading from then on.

    As for Ooi Kok Hin’s comments as to why MU graduates do not write books about the institution, I will tell him why. One spends years doing research to gather material for one’s book, spending a lot of time and money to write the book. In the end, one loses out financially when the book is published because not too many copies of the book get sold although there is a demand for it. This is due to the poor marketing and distribution strategies of the MU Press. Even the Kedai Buku of MU does not want to sell your book. Although graduates of MU want to buy the book in Johore Bahru, Ipoh, Kuantan, Penang, Alor Setar, etc, it is not available for sale there. In the end, one gets only a pittance in royalty from the sale of the book. Who would want to write a book for publication by the MU Press?. On top of that, the internal editors try to correct the English of the author when their English is bad. Just imagine, when I prepared the index for my Book, I listed the chancellor, the pro-chancellor, the vice-chancellor and the deputy chancellors separately but the internal editors lumped all under the term “chancellor” as if all the four posts are alike? Just imagine, the internal editors trying to correct the author’s entries when they do not even know the differences in the official structure of the university’s officials. The MU Press should be closed down!

    Like Din, I too feel embarrassed to tell people that I was once associated with MU.

    Chung Tat Lim.

  13. Embarrassment? Nay.. I remain faithful. I am who i want to be with no regrets.

    Supposing i’ve a doctorate from MU. I have been asked to speak during a convocation ceremony as a guest of honor in a foreign varsity – what should i wear in accordance to academic convention? Go naked or wear the robes of my alma mater?

    To be embarrassed and regret having to serve as One had to – is the height of hypocrisy and lack of self respect – or worse, unfulfilled hubris. Once retired, let go.., or else live in a poverty of regrets. No Fear – the world will fumble and tumble, as it always has.

    And yes, i have a unconscionable Funny No-Name. A non-Person.

  14. Mr. C. L. Famiiaris, you must be suffering from a kind of phobia. judging from the way you write your comments. You are so cynical, I wonder which university would want to invite you to speak at a convocation ceremony. People will know who the real hypocrite is, judging from your cynical comments. You must be thinking you are a brillant UM graduate when in reality you are not. You must be really sick from the way you write your comments. As I said before, since you yourself admitted that you were a dog, a real SOB, go bite your own folks. Don’t bite outsiders whom you do not know.. Chung Tat Lim.

  15. Mr. Familiaris, you wrote about some people being of lesser pedigere. Does that mean you regard yourself to be of better pedigree. How can a person whi regarded himself to bea dog a d a SOBe f n[beter edibee and judge kthers

  16. Mr. Familiaris, you wrote about some people being of lesser pedigree. Does that mean you regard yourself to be of better pedigree, compared to some others?. How can a person who regarded himself to be a dog and a SOB be of better pedigree and be a judge of other people’s pedigree? You talk of the UM lake as if you are an expert on a

  17. Ya, as if you are also an expert of water lilies when i reality you probably know nuts about UM. If you have no regrets about UM, you should not be criticising your alma mater in thi manner. Only a hpocrite will do that.= not practising what he reaches. You ask people not to have regrets when you yourself have regets. Isn’t that beng hypocritical? Chung Tat Lim.

  18. Uh.., true i’m a mongrel.
    And you represented the clueless pedigreed Establishment, who pretended to to do everything ‘right’? Right?
    No regrets means no regrets or you’ll meet your maker with too much of that.
    For all you know, i might be your ophthalmologist.. Haha..

  19. And besides, you feel very much more alive now, after lecturing me..?
    BP and hormones up? But don’t blow a vessel becuz of unworthy me.
    Ever wondered how many people truly ‘loved’ you?
    Yup. That’s what doggies are for – unconditional love and aggravation.
    But you make a lousy psychoanalyst. Try harder.

  20. din i think u r enjoying the conversation between lim chung tat n friends. may b syed hussein will join conversation

  21. What is so funny about being hated? A person who is so much loved by eveyone, as C.L Familiaris thinks he is, is not worth his salt in this world. That is why Tun Mahathir is more hated than he is loved by the people of Malaysia and that is why he was and is still an effective leader despite his old age. If you know him, ask him whether he cares being hated. He would not care even if the whole world hates him. That is what makes a world leader – to be hated and be loved and not just loved.

    What is so great about you being my opthalmologist? If you were mine,i would not want to see you. Knowing some of the current opthalmologists and their arrogance, what is so great about being an opthalmologist? Most of the local ones cannot even measure up to opthalmologists like Datuk Dr. Lai Yoon Kee of Penang, formerly of UM, especially those who got their Master’s degree from UM -a programme started by the late Prof. Tan Sri Dr. T. J. Danaraj and I in 1974! Arrogance! Chung Tat Lim
    Cool it, CT Lim.–Din Merican.

  22. Universiti malaya is not the The University of Malaya(UM) because UM has changed to National University of Singapore(NUS). Just look at the logo of 1949, it is more similar with the logo of NUS.

  23. Din, I have been trying to cool it. That was why I have refrained from making comments whenever I notice the so-called mongrel’s comments ( I did not call him that. He called himself that.) BUT that fellow keeps on making personal comments. If he wants it, I am game for anything too. i suppose that “””cannot refrain from making personal remarks about me because he hates me so much although I do not even know who he is. I must have stepped on his toes when he was a student at MU..

    Chung Tat Lim

  24. Dear Anonymous, the University of Malaya (UM) from 1949 to 1961 was the parent of the present Nattional University of Singapore (NUS) and Universiti Malaya (MU). UM moved its Department of Engineering to the Kuala Lumpur campus at Pantai Valley in July 1957. On 15th January 1959, both campuses, in Singapore and in KL, were set up as Divisions of MU – the Singapore Division was known then as the University of Malaya in Singapore and the KL Division as the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur for teachng ourposes, both with their own autonomous Council, Senate and Faculties, Principal and Registrar but with the same Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and Univerity Court.. and, using the same University crest or logo. MU up to 1961 had only the Faculties of Engineering, Arts and Science. The degree scrolls issued by both Dvisions were the same then.

    On 1st January 1962, the original UM was dissolved and the two separate Divisions became separate national universites The Singapore Division beame the University of Singapore and the KL Division retained the name of University of Malaya or Uniiversiti Malaya in Bahasa Malaysia (still using the abbreviation “UM” or “MU”) . The University of Singapore merged with Nanyang University tn 1980 to become the National Universty of Singapore or NUS. This is the historial fact. Chung Tat Lim.

  25. Previously, it was run by academicians, now it is run by politicians.
    Get the right men for the right job. Then you will see UM in her former glory

  26. , then UM should put a stop to the practice of Parkinson’s Law in the university, from top to bottom.I don’t know what is happening. My comments get posted before I finished and I did not click on “Post Comment”. So, to continue “……..the present UM can never redeem the past respect and glory that it enjoyed before 1974, i.e. before YAB Tun Mahathir Mohd as the Minister of Education and the subsequent Ministers of Education and the governnment-appointed vice-chancellors and pro tem deputy vice-chancellors made changes to the institution – more so when those running the University are those who are not graduates of UM . The Kedai Buku should be closed. The same with the UM Press. If UM wants to save money because of the cuts by the government, then it should put a stop to the then UM should put a stop to the practice of Parkinson’s Law in the university, from top to bottom.

  27. Nothing will change in Malaysia because the Ketuanan Melayu-Islam heroes DO NOT want the change. These people are willing to let the university die rather than opening up the university to non-BN aligned people. To all non parents. Educate your children well. Send them to a reputable private university in Malaysia or overseas if you can afford it. If you cannot afford to do so then MAKE SURE your kids pick up a diploma or certificate in some form of technical course. This can be done full time or even part time. Next, tell your kids to look for jobs in the more advanced countries. If they have trouble there is always Singapore. Lest anyone forgets Singapore is the ONLY advanced country in Southeast Asia.

    Do you people know that working in Singapore means you do not have to waste your live making car loan payments, maintenance and toll which only serves to enrich a bigoted government which is openly hostile to nons . Singapore’s public transportation connectivity is very good even when compared to cities like London, Toronto or Tokyo. SGD 1 to MYR2.90 is a no brainer. On top of that, dollar for dollar Singapore actually pays more for the same job. Your children will still have to slog but at least they will be slogging for themselves and not to make a bunch of Melayu-Islam bigots and their cronies richer. This country holds no future for the regular nons.

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