Academic Freedom and The University

December 21, 2016

Academic Freedom and The University

by Teoh King Men@www,

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”–George Washington


Historically, our academic freedom had its origins in the 1960s, cherished and upheld by the Universiti Malaya Student Union (UMSU) and the Persekutuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya (PBMUM). Led by Anwar Ibrahim, these movements were instrumental in getting then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to step down. It also implicated the police force, who invaded Universiti Malaya and subsequently disrupted the protests against the erstwhile PM.

Image result for Mahathir screwed academic freedom

We forget that it is this man as Prime Minister for 22 years+who was  the slayer of academic freedom when he was Minister of Education in the 1970s.–Din Merican

Likewise, in 1979, a large-scale demonstration by students in solidarity with poor farmers in Baling, Kedah, faced similar consequences. Hishamuddin Rais, a student activist, was forced to flee the country as the Malaysian government went out of its way to arrest the demonstrators.

As these two brief recollections of past events have shown, students of past decades were broadly active in raising awareness on issues of great concern to both public and private interests – issues both political and personal, national and local.

Turning to the present, it should then come as no surprise that in light of the country’s recent 1Malaysia Development Berhad and public finance scandals, the freedom to protest has once more been trampled upon. Universiti Malaya student Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof and two other student activists were recently suspended for a semester and slapped with a RM400 fine for their involvement in the “Tangkap MO1” (MO1) rally.

Image result for University of Malaya in 1960

It must be emphasised that students play an integral part in the exchange of ideas and truth in our society, and therefore, should be permitted a platform on which to speak up on pressing issues, such as on corruption, governmental irresponsibility and betrayal of public trust.

 After the Malaysian Federal Constitution came into force in August 1957, we were granted the right to freedom of speech, assembly and association, protected under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution – or rather, that is what the authorities would like us to believe. The rights of students, and indeed of everyone and anyone, to say what they think and to protest is pivotal to our democracy and the prevention of state tyranny.

Freedom of speech has no limits, and should always be respected. There is a clear distinction to be made between free speech and incitement to violence. The government, however, has been attempting to label any form of political dissent or criticism as incitement to violence. I quote George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

Free speech was the predominant mechanism that granted the Malays their United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – which was inaugurated on May 11, 1946 in Johor Bahru – and the emergence of Datuk Onn Jaafar as its first President. UMNO obtained support from all strata of Malay society in opposing the Malayan Union – the aristocrats, the radical Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (Malay Nationalist Party or MNP), Islamic groups, civil servants, rural leaders like the penghulu (village heads), and even the Police and ex-service personnel.

“Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them. It produces excellent writers, and encourages men of fine genius.” – Benjamin Franklin

Image result for University of Malaya in 1960

It is thus a matter of utmost importance that we do not stifle debate among students in the academic community. The reason being, this country is abundant in financial capital but lacking in intellectual capital – the solution to corruption is not more corruption, nor the remedy to state tyranny being more tyranny, but it is the need for intellectual honesty and expression.

Above all, the University was once a highly held institution for the free expression of ideas. And protests and rallies are inevitably part of such milieu. Academic freedom should be respected in the University in order for the students to think critically and voice up against the issues that concern them. Let us never lose sight of this, and preserve our rights.

Teoh King Men is an FMT reader.

3 thoughts on “Academic Freedom and The University

  1. Lim CT, you have been absent from this blog for quite a while. I am sure as UM Registrar when I was in MU in the 1960s, you have some views on academic free at MU when we both were in Pantai Valley and Sir Alexander Oppenheim and his successors who included Syed Husssein Al-atas and Ungku A.Aziz. –Din Merican

  2. Din, I have been absent from your blogs on Universiti Malaya for a while because there is nothing to crow about this institution which I helped to build up from scratch from 1959 to the very early 1970s when “administration and academic affairs” of the University came under the Registrar. That was during the stewardship of “Oppie” Oppenheim, Chin Fung Kee and R.L.Huang as Acting VC, J.H,E. Griffiths and Ungku Aziz in his first few years as VC. I also helped to oversee the planning, design, construction, setting up, organisation and running of UM’s Medical Centre (Faculty of Medicine and UMMC ) from 1963 to 1978.

    A good university needs talented teaching staff and researchers but also a strong and dynamic Administration and supporting staff to progress and survive. Although I was the Registrar until 1985 when I opted for early retirerment, as early as the early 1970s I had already predicted to my colleagues and friends that UM was only likely to go down the drain the way changes were being made to the institution. I was proven right. I had hoped that changes made by my friend, Ghauth Jasmon as VC, from 2009 to 2014 would improve the institution but it was not to be. Not only has the UM Administration become weak but its young administrative staff seem to have become terribly inefficient as is evident from my recent experiences:

    – in 2016, I went to the Bursar’s Office to ask for a fresh replacement cheque for Rm377, being payment of book royalty. I was assured by a young accountant that the fresh cheque would be sent to me within 3 days but I only received the fresh cheque after more than two months;

    -in September 2016, i emailed the Registrar to ask for some pension details. It would take only a few minutes to send me the details by email but I only got the details after three months;and

    -I was invited to the Special Convocation to confer the Hon.D.Litt. on the King of Saudi Arabia held at UM on 27th February, supposedly as a Govt. VIP. I received the Invitation Card only on 2nd March . The postmark showed that the Card was posted on 28th February.

    The current VC cannot do much as long as he ha such staff. Quo Vadis, UM?
    CT Lim,

    Good to hear from you. I can understand why you are disappointed. As someone who was there from 1960-1963, I too am horrified by what I see in UM (during my time it is MU)today. While I recognise some old buildings constructed then, I can detect UM’s lack of vibrancy. The institution which was established in 1905 pales in comparison with the National University of Singapore. Post Ungku Aziz, UM has become a fourth rate institution run by UMNO appointed Vice Chancellors and staffed by UMNO chosen academics.

    There are exceptions of course like Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Rajah Rasiah, Terence Gomez, Azmi Sharom, Lee Hwok-Aun et. al. UMNO politicians since Mahathir (including Anwar Ibrahim) interfered in the affairs of UM. –Din Merican

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