February 17, 2016
The silly threats to academic freedom – Dr Lee Hwok Aun
At the risk of breaking the law, I wish to comment on something positively important: the government’s commitment to retain university tuition rates – in spite of massive funding cuts – is a good assurance. The cuts bring about other detriments; that’s another story.
But I must stop remarking on the benefits of the government’s assurance of not raising fees, since I have most definitely broken the law. All because I have not obtained the education minister’s permission to praise him.
I did not have time – nor the desire, I admit – to seek the minister’s written consent to commend him. I hope he doesn’t mind, even though he’s fully empowered to take action against unsolicited, warrantless, free compliments.
If you think I am being ridiculous, you should read the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act 2000 (SBA).
As a public university staff, I fall under its jurisdiction. The act allows for the government to restrict, preclude and punish our activity and expression. And this little known legislation packs a (potentially) massive punch. With reference to disciplinary action against staff, its scope and intent are terrifyingly paranoid and ridiculously restrictive, more than the well-known and notorious Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA).
Section 18. 1 (a) of the SBA warns us that “an officer shall not, either orally or in writing or in any other manner make any public statement that is detrimental to any policy, programme or decision of the statutory body or the government on any issue”. Of course, this embodies the UMNO-BN spirit of intolerance toward dissent, freedom of thought and public accountability. It is a blanket ban; there is not even any provision for officers to seek permission to criticise the government. That would be asking too much. And just in case we are not sure how sweeping is the scope of prohibition, this act makes things explicit: “on any issue”.
We should not be surprised. Punishing statutory body employees for criticising without prior approval is the hallmark of the authoritarian state we have long inhabited. Note that the Statutory Bodies (Surcharge and Discipline) Act was passed in 2000, under Tun Mahathir’s watch.
But read on and it gets a bit surprising, very amusing, and downright hysterical. Section 18. 2 (a) prohibits making “any comments on the advantages of any policy, programme or decision of the statutory body or the government… unless the prior written permission, either generally or specifically, has first been obtained from the minister.” With this edict that we must seek permission to applaud, Umno-BN grants itself veto power over ego-inflating activities. It cannot even relax a bit and leave us free to sing the government’s praises. This is the stuff of totalitarian regimes, which we may be inclined to laugh off and briefly feel embarrassed about.
But we should be a bit outraged. The installation of such mechanisms of control and arbitrary power stifles academic freedom, constricts our breathing space. It may be a slow and intermittent squeeze, not necessarily a brutal and constant strangulation. How many times have we reckoned a certain law gives arbitrary power, but the state is unlikely to exercise it?
We did not expect the Sedition Act to be used against an academic for expressing his expert opinion – until Azmi Sharom’s prosecution under this law. In times of mad desperation, obnoxious laws become attractive, obscure articles get summoned from the cold. The charges against Azmi have just been dropped. But a new climate of fear and conformity has been injected into our universities.
Have we thought that students would only be harassed for making “political”, partisan statements? Universiti Malaya has just subjected six students to disciplinary action for complaining about wifi quotas without the university’s permission. Armed with the UUCA (it’s still a menace), the university deemed them guilty and issued stern warnings. University policies on student welfare are untouchable.
Interestingly, the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act has recently been invoked at the University of Malaya in a reminder for academics to be docile minions. The intent is pre-emptive, to urge self-censorship. Again, one might be tempted to think, unless academics say troublesome things, they should not get into trouble.
But saying anything can be trouble, when giving praise without permission is punishable.
I am reminded of a Biro Tata Negara examination that I took, together with government scholars at a Kem Bina Negara a number of years ago. One particular question and its multiple choice answers are unforgettable. It asked, what is the worth of preserving our forest and natural heritage? Two of the options were: (a) conservation allows us to enjoy nature, (b) to provide bio-technology resources for Malaysia to exploit. The only correct answer is (b); (a) is plain wrong. Such is canned, dictated praise.
Will the state start to wield the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act against free speech? Will it prohibit criticism of the government on any issue and inhibit the crucial role academics in sharing our opinion? Will comments on the drawbacks – and advantages – of government policy be fettered? What if a professor publicly disagrees with the Attorney-General drowning the RM2.6 billion scandal, or remarks that 1MDB seems to have yielded advantages for Jho Low and Datuk Seri Najib Razak? Will disciplinary action be taken?
I fear that such spectres are less and less far-fetched. And that’s a shame.The government and its institutions are permitted to make themselves look silly and immature, but they should not be given free rein to drag this nation to new depths of idiocy and infamy.
*Dr.Lee Hwok Aun is senior lecturer in the Department of Development Studies, University of Malaya.