The silly threats to academic freedom

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.


The sorry state of Malaysia’s Public Universities

January 7, 2016

The sorry state of Malaysia’s Public Universities

By Murray Hunter


Malaysia’s public universities have dropped completely out of the World University Rankings maintained by the Times of London. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia was ranked 87th in the top 100 Asian rankings in 2013, but has since fallen out. Not a single Malaysian university made the top 100 Asian rankings.

The collapse of higher education in Malaysia has grown so marked that World Bank economist Dr Frederico Gil Sander  recently said the state of the system is more alarming than the country’s considerable public debt. The talent needed to develop the Malaysian economy is not being produced.

It isn’t just the Times survey. Malaysian public universities have also shown mixed results in other surveys like the QS rankings,where three Malaysian universities rose slightly while Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, International Islamic Universiti Malaysia, and Universiti Teknologi MARA, all slipped. Not a single Malaysian university made the top 100. According to the QS ranking profiles, Malaysian universities have lost significant ground in academic reputation and tend to be weak in research, with no Malaysian university even reaching the top 400.


Public Universities Vice-Chancellor/Rector Committee Chairman Kamarudin Hussin, also Vice Chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UMNIMAP) claims that the ranking methodologies favor older, more established universities. Yet many universities within the top 100 Asian universities were established relatively recently. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, ranked 7th was established in 1980, Nanyang Technological University, ranked 10th was set up in 1991, and Pohang University of Science and Technology, ranked 11th, was established in 1986.

Even ideologically governed schools better

In addition, a number of universities from countries that are not democratically, governed like Sharif University of Technology (43rd, Iran), Isfahan University of Technology (61, Iran), Iran University of Science and Technology (69), King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (71, Saudi Arabia), and King Saud University (72, Saudi Arabia), all made the top 100 Asian university rankings last year.

Kamarudin accepts that Malaysian universities have “many issues that must be resolved….(and) there are plenty of oversights that must be fixed”. However, unfortunately, he didn’t mention what they are, or offer any solutions.

Probably the tone Kamarudin used in his article hints at the first problem – the view that authority takes precedence. Kamarudin asserts that academic freedom exists, but should be subject to the views of the so-called “majority,” which could be read as authority. In August last year, Kamarudin was one of the strongest opponents of students attending the Bersih 4 rally, threatening disciplinary action such as suspension or even expulsion of students who attended.

Independent thought suppressed

Supressing independent thought is counterproductive to creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, the very mindset that Malaysian universities seek to develop. Among the characteristics required are people who are knowledgeable and have the right to choose.

Malaysian universities begin to lose the plot where their leaders are glorified with unnecessary ceremonies that make a mockery of academia, and tend to dominate the persona of universities, rather than act as facilitators for people to excel.

This leads to unnecessary expenses such as lavish dinners with highly paid entertainers to celebrate this or that event, this award or that. Some of these dinners are very extravagant, costing up to hundreds of thousands of ringgit. Vice Chancellors make lavish trips both domestically and internationally, with no apparent benefit to the universities except for MOUs that are never acted upon.

This is in a time when university budgets are being slashed, the minister has directed university management to be frugal and seek funds outside government allocations.

Waste, incompetence

The waste goes much further. The Malaysian Auditor General’s 2012 report, for instance, cited Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) mishandling of its computerized maintenance management system. After the university spent RM400,000 between 2008 and 2012, the Auditor-General found that data was not keyed into the system and the person responsible for managing the system had no IT knowledge.

The cost of three building projects ballooned 8.9 percent at Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM) due to delays and inexperience of the contractor.

The Auditor-General further found at Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UNIMAP) that funding allocations didn’t take into account the basic needs of students in the planning and construction of its main campus. Despite the allocation of RM438.64 million for setting up UNIMAP under the 8th Malaysian Plan, only 25 percent of the campus plans have been completed, which university management blamed on budget constraints.

What is even more startling according to the report is that UNIMAP made the first payment to the contractor working on the permanent campus before the contract was fully negotiated and signed. The report further states that workmanship is extremely poor, cement in many places is cracking and crumbling, roads and parking areas are inappropriate and much of the equipment supplied is not functioning.

According to the report, from 2002 to 2012 the university had no dormitories and has been renting them and ferrying students to campus instead, at a cost of RM138.4 million. In 2015, Unimap arranged with the Proven Group of Companies to supply additional privately owned accommodation at Titi Tinggi, some 35 km from Kangar and 40 km from the main campus at Ulu Pauh. Details of the agreement have never been made public, but UNIMAP will pay rent for 15 years for the use of this accommodation, but ownership will continue to remain private.

The Unmimap-Proven venture is contrary to the Education Ministry’s vision of universities earning income through hostel rental to students. Thus in the medium to long-term the university will be restricted in the ways it can earn revenue to fund future budget cuts. Similar issues exist at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) where the lack of student accommodation has led to severe overcrowding at hostels.

Corruption rampant

Mismanagement and waste is one issue, but outright corruption is another.Any significant time spent within Malaysian academia will produce stories about corruption. However, most, if not all of these remain hearsay, as there are few reports of corruption to higher authorities and very few charges are ever made, with no convictions.

Just some examples that have come to the writer’s attention are consultancy companies run and operated by faculty, with deans and deputy deans as directors and shareholders. Students have told the writer in confidence that examiners at master’s and PhD level ask outright for payments to pass. A particular dean of a new faculty used a company owned by proxies to supply equipment. University cars have been sent to workshops for repairs that don’t exist.

Academics are paying for articles to be published in academic journals without peer review, and the heavy use of research grants for questionable travel is common.University staff tend to be fearful of their superiors, most extremely hesitant to blow the whistle on their peers and superiors. In an interview with a state director of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the writer was told that the MACC would provide a neutral and discreet place for those who wanted to remain anonymous and report corruption. However those few that came forward faced hurdles with the MACC that were almost insurmountable, such as being requested to file a police report which would jeopardize anonymity.

Domineering Vice Chancellors

A major problem is leadership. Vice chancellors tend to be domineering, not allowing room for dissent from their own faculty and university members. Often staff are selected on loyalty rather than merit. Strong Vice Chancellors can browbeat the university board and get their own way on operational issues, due to the transitory nature of university boards.

Universities within Malaysia have become dominated by Vice Chancellors who are intent on micromanaging their universities. The strong power-distance relationships that develop between the leader and subordinates is powerful enough to destroy many of the management checks and balances that exist to prevent mismanagement and even abuse of power.

It’s time to re-organize Malaysian public universities from the top down. Not only is new leadership needed, but heavy reform of the organization so that these institutions should function as they are meant to. All importantly, vision beyond self-glorification is desperately needed by public university leadership. 

Murray Hunter is an Australian academic who recently taught at a Malaysian university

Malaysia: Putting University Research under the Microscope

October 13, 2015

Malaysia: Putting University Research under the Microscope

by Murray Hunter

Why we are laggards compared to Universities in Asia:

  • We have a very low standard in the English language proficiency here in Malaysia and it is considered to be at a critical level which actually affects the well-being and international prestige of this country.
  • We have also a deficiency when it comes to thinking and solving problems. Analytical and critical thinking skills are very important as they help us to evaluate the problem and to make good decisions.
  • We tend to have mind-sets and value systems that are closed. By having a closed mind-set, we will not be able to accept feedback and learn from what others have to offer. We are not exposed to challenges or high standards and this is what makes us unable to cope with diversity.
  • Our poor communication skills also causes a breakdown in our productivity and this creates a poor work environment.

Malaysia is spending about 5.9 per cent of GDP on education and 1.13 per cent of GDP on research and development. However as at 2015, no Malaysian universities have made the top 100 of the THES global or Asian university rankings, or QS World University Rankings. This is in great contrast to universities with a similar start-up time frame in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India, and even Saudi Arabia, making the top 100 in the Asian rankings over the last few years.

Although Malaysia’s ranking is high (33rd place) in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) world innovation index in 2014, the level of resident patent applications and grants is still relatively low, being ranked 44th. Patent applications have grown from 218 applications in 1999, to 1,199 in 2013, with only 39 granted in 1999, growing to 288 patent grants in 2013. When considering that 10 per cent of these applications have been made by only 10 companies in Malaysia, there is still a long way to go for Malaysian university research to have the impact that some feel within Malaysian Government circles is due.

Malaysian university researchers, according to a Malaysian Government bibliometric study in 2012, recorded an output of 29,815 papers, although these figures may have gone up since then. This placed Malaysia in 45th position in the world, but only 50th based on citations, which is a good guide to the usefulness of knowledge presented. In terms of the research impact measured by citations per paper, Malaysia only ranked 136. This is in contrast to Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan, which were ranked 46, 75, and 84th respectively. Even papers produced in Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia had greater citation rates per paper than Malaysia.

Malaysian University Research

There are a number of probable reasons contributing to this poor performance. The first reason stems from the organisational structure of the Malaysian research community itself. Research has been organised into clusters with top down priorities formulated by ‘unknown sources’ within particular ministries. These priorities are not always in line with market or community needs. Most often, like the biotechnology plan, the lead time to create commercial and bankable projects is too long.

A Government corporation like the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, controlled by bureaucrats is put in charge, where market needs often don’t make sense to the administrators. Projects are often kept in the hands of these corporations rather than commercialised, just to show the bureaucrats are doing their jobs.

Malaysian research is hindered by a lot of unnecessary costs, and bureaucracy. Although agencies like the corridor authorities were set up with the view to decentralising research and development, most initiatives are still top down and controlled by bureaucracy. These authorities are notorious in not talking to local community groups and develop strategies like paddy estates that local communities cannot accept, thus becoming ‘white elephants’. In more sinister terms, many of these research and development projects turn over community assets to government linked companies (GLCs), with little or any community benefit.

The second major problem is the nature of Malaysian academia itself. Research is a prerequisite to promotion within the Malaysian University system. This requires academics producing papers to apply for senior faculty positions. In some of the newer Malaysian universities, entering prototypes and products into technology and invention exhibitions is a way around producing papers. Consequently a large proportion of research funds go into making up promotion materials, travel, and accommodation, rather than actual research. Having a research grant is seen by many researchers as a means to travel, be it to an exhibition or conference in some exotic part of the world.

As a consequence, much university research output has little community or market relevance. The paper or prototype was produced to achieve a publishing KPI, or gain a medal at any of the international exhibitions around the world. Paradoxically, Malaysian researchers are travelling the world, but actually producing little, if any output of any commercial nature, even with the awards they are winning.

Many researchers with the above objectives in mind tend to work in isolation to industry and the community. Unlike Thailand, universities in Malaysia don’t have the same need to outreach to the community, so there are very few research projects undertaken within local communities. There is also very little collaboration with industry. This is probably not the complete fault of the researchers as industry in Malaysia, tends to be still unsophisticated when it comes to university collaboration.

As a consequence very few production prototypes ever get scaled up to commercial production. Even if there are willing parties, university bureaucracies often stall efforts to commercialize research with high financial demands, and lack of time due to other responsibilities like teaching by the researchers.

Many complex areas of research today, say in biotechnology, require teams of specialists to make specific disciplinary contributions to research. However, although in Malaysia we see many papers with multiple authors, most of them passengers. Deans, Vice Chancellors, or senior members of faculty are often put into paper authorships to curry favour for promotional purposes.

Malaysian universities have tended to put emphasis on producing large quantities of papers, rather than quality. Many academics are practicing ‘chequebook academia’ by paying to place articles in journals that can publish them within a month or so from submission. The quantity of paper output rather than academic weight is the prime KPI of Malaysian universities today.

In addition, many of the papers produced originate from the work of students, who may or may not have their name on the paper as co-author. The author has witnessed the ludicrous situation where many a Malaysian academic delivers a paper at a conference, but is unable to answer questions from the floor during question time. Some Malaysian academics are producing over 30 papers per year from this method.

Malaysian academics are very hesitant to take up alternative methods of research, such as ethnography and narrative in the social sciences. This is a symptom of a general will to innovate in the area of research. The preferred route is a safe one where other research tends to be duplicated within a Malaysian context. So in an engineering conference or invention expo, one will tend to see lots of solar panel concepts that have been revamped into new contexts, as an attempt to be novel.

Malaysian academics tend to follow local leads. If for example, Balanced Scorecard is popular at a particular university, then one will see a number of faculty members doing their PhD thesis on Balanced Scorecard.

Innovation is desperately needed in Malaysian university research, but the panels who vet research grants tend to be bitterly conservative and penalise any academic who tries to be innovative.

Malaysia needs to look at what China is doing with university research. It is quickly becoming a powerhouse, looking at contemporary problems and issues with strong research teams. The language barrier is being broken with good editors employed to work up papers to international standard.

Malaysian university research needs a paradigm change. Instead of following national agendas instituted by bureaucrats, bottom up thinking needs to be appreciated and accepted. Most technologies already exist, and don’t need to be re-invented. What is needed is applying these technologies to community and industrial problems that exist outside local universities.

Citations to research need reward rather than the production is raw papers. A realisation is needed that patenting concepts and products that have no commercial value is a futile pursuit, although it fulfills a university KPI.

Grant panels need to practice meritocracy, and grant fund to the most innovative rather than conservative.

Although overall research output is increasing from universities within Malaysia, emphasis must now be put on producing quality research, if Malaysia is not to continually fall behind its other ASEAN neighbours.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Asia University Ranking 2015

June 10, 2015

National University of Singapore –No. 1 in  QS University Rankings: Asia 2015 and University of Malaya No. 29

by FMT Reporters

NUSWhile Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea have firmly established themselves as the top hubs for education in Asia, Malaysia’s improved ranking offers clear hope that progress is taking place, says Ben Sowter, head of research at education and career consultants, QS Quacquarelli Symonds (QS).

In a media statement issued in conjunction with the release of its QS University Rankings: Asia 2015, Sowter acknowledged that Malaysia has great ambitions and places education and innovation among the top priorities of its agenda.

“With an annual expenditure that is the highest among its Asian peers, Malaysia demonstrates a serious commitment to improve its regional and global competitiveness,” he added, saying that the latest rankings reflect that “concerted efforts” were being made in this direction although “great room for enhancement remains.”

The survey ranks the top 300 universities in Asia based on criteria such as academic and employer reputation, student-faculty ratio, papers per faculty and citations per paper. It is tabulated from the responses of some 42,000 academics in Asia and worldwide.

Evolution_of_the_University_of_MalayaStarted at the same time: NUS No.1 and UM No.29

The seventh edition of the rankings confirmed National University of Singapore (NUS) as Asia’s top institution. Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) also featured prominently on the list, climbing to fourth place.

It also underlined Hong Kong’s and Korea’s prowess as major education hubs. Hong Kong University placed second, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, fifth, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, sixth.

Among Korean institutions, KAIST, formerly called Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, placed third, the Seoul National University, eighth, and the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), tenth.

Twenty-one Malaysian universities featured among the top 300.UM Seventeen rose in rankings compared to last year, one maintained its position while three suffered a drop.

University of Malaya (29th) placed within the Top 30, rising three rungs. It did well in the faculty/student ratio indicator, placing 11th regionally, and was 19th in the international faculty indicator.

Universiti Sains Malaysia rose from 57th to 49th, breaking into the top 50 Asian Universities on the strength of improvements noted in its academic reputation, faculty/student ratio, paper per faculty, and its international faculty indicator.

Three other local universities which were placed in the rankings’ Top 100 were Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)(56th), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) (61st) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (66th).

There are 25 Chinese institutions among the top 100, many of which enjoyed an increase in their research output, spurred by the impressive and sustained level of public and private investment, second only to the US, QS revealed.

In India, however, only nine institutions reached the top 100, with the Indian Institute of Science (34th) emerging as the country’s leading representative.

Japanese institutions appear to have lost ground by reason of their poorer ability to attract international staff and international students, Taiwan continues to pull above its weight with 12 among the top 100 universities, while Thailand has two.