Remembering D J Enright–The Mendicant Professor in Singapore (1960)

July 21, 2016

I am about to complete my reading of Irene Ng’s  excellent, intimate and moving 575 page biography on S. Rajaratnam titled The Singapore Lion, where she mentioned the iconic Foreign Minister’s handling of the Professor D J  Enright Affair when he was Minister of Culture as follows:

“The laborious effort to give birth to a collective identity at times brought out an uncharacteristic edginess in Raja. It was manifest in his reaction –or rather, overreaction–to British poet academic DJ Enright who had dismissed the government’s effort to create a Malayan culture as “futile”at his inaugural lecture at the University of Malaya on 17 November, 1960.”(p.327)

I recommend this biography to all Singapore afficionadoes. It tells the story of Malayan from Seremban who made a fateful decision to go into politics from journalism and become a patriot of his adopted country. Raja’s onslaught on academic freedom in the early years of the PAP government was indeed controversial. But the issue of academic freedom remains relevant today. I think it is worth reviving it for our discussion.  –Din Merican

Remembering D J Enright–The Mendicant Professor in Singapore (1960)

by Edgar Liao

Few young Singaporeans today would know of Dennis Joseph Enright, a name that might ring only faint bells to some from older generation. As Professor of English at the University of Malaya in Singapore, he had taught for a decade between 1960 and 1970. Enright is inadvertently remembered for his role as key antagonist in the conflict with PAP Ministers Ahmad Ibrahim, S. Rajaratnam, and eventually Lee Kuan Yew, over his alleged criticisms of the newly-enthroned PAP government’s cultural policies in November 1960, published in then colonial-owned Straits Times.

Decades after Enright had left the University in 1970, the occasional mention of his name in the press would invariably evoke his ‘connection with the so-called ‘Enright Affair’’, for example in a Straits Times special feature on the event of his candidacy for the British Poet Laureateship; during a week-long visit in 1994; and in eulogies in remembrance of Enright by two of his ex-students, Robert Yeo and Ban Kah Choon.[1] Enright’s name also merits an entry in the recently-published Singapore: The Encyclopedia:

….he angered the newly elected People’s Action Party (PAP) government in his inaugural lecture when he attacked the government’s plans to curb so-called ‘yellow culture’ by banning jukeboxes and pornography…he almost lost his work permit; but a conciliatory letter to Lee Kuan Yew and mediation resolved the controversy, and Enright remained in Singapore until 1970.[2]

This representation of “the Enright Affair” belies its complexity. The politics of decolonization and culture during the tumultuous post-Japanese Occupation period provoked a vehement governmental response to published comments by a renowned British writer-academic who believed that culture and cultural production constituted a domain distinct and separate from politics.

The cultural policies Enright derogated were aimed at forging a homogenous ‘Malayan culture’, synthesized from the cultural traditions of the main ethnic groups in Malaya and Singapore with Malay as the national language, in order to resolve the twin menaces of communalism and chauvinism which the PAP moderates viewed as the most pressing impediment to their desired political goal of achieving Singapore’s independence through Merger. Concomitantly, the public rebuke of an impertinent Englishman was consistent with the PAP’s constantly-voiced hostility towards foreign interference in local politics, and necessitated by its fierce anti-colonial stance, demanded by the fervently leftist and anti-imperialist Chinese-educated masses that constituted the party’s support base.

D J Enright–The Poet of Humanism

Crucially, the Affair subsequently involved the English-educated students of the University of Malaya. A section of this group had already been politicized by the Japanese Occupation and the tide of decolonization in the region. Other than overt political activism, another expression of their politics was their staunch defence of the inter-woven ideals of university autonomy and academic freedom. Governmental violation of the two principles had been a subject of the students’ ire since at least 1951, when British authorities raided the university’s grounds to apprehend members of the Anti-British League.

After ascension to power in 1959, pointed gestures by the PAP directed at the university only exacerbated the students’ fear of the university losing its autonomy. Perceiving the rebuke of a professor as another intolerable infringement of academic freedom, over five hundred students voted at an Emergency General Meeting to publicly condemn the government’s action against Enright.

While the Enright Affair is one of many incidents in Singapore’s past which has remained absent from the official discourse of Singapore’s history, the event had acquired historical significance within a diverse yet inter-related range of discourses. It is occasionally extricated from its context and evoked as a metaphor and symbol by different individuals and groups who attached different meanings to the event in accordance to their own identification with the underlying issues. For the PAP for example, the Affair became an occasional metaphor for the students’ over-idealistic defense of abstract principles that hindered their participation in nation-building. In a speech to University students in 1966, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew invoked the Enright Affair to express his frustration with the students’ persistence in defending an abstract notion of academic freedom.[3]


The Students Mobilize [Extracted from The Malayan Undergrad, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Dec., 1960), pp.4-5]

On the other hand, the Affair is remembered generally as a trace of the PAP government’s paternalistic style of governance. For the staff and student members of the University, it is embraced as a symbol of increasing governmental interference in the university and the PAP’s infringements of university autonomy and academic freedom. In his Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor, Enright complained about the unremitting persistence of people he met, within and without the University, in associating him with the Affair, and about being taken by the University ‘as a symbol of academic freedom in its quarrels with an increasingly intrusive government.’[4]

On the occasion of a University of Singapore lecturer alluding to the Enright Affair at a university forum on university autonomy and academic freedom in July 1966, which was reported by the Straits Times, Enright sent the Straits Times a letter in which he sought for ‘remission of symbolism’ and expressed his wish that the battle for the two ideals be waged on ‘firm and on firmly remembered ground’, instead of an event that had become ‘mythical’ in his opinion.[5]

The entrenchment of the Affair’s symbolism accompanied the government’s assertion of its authority over the University, from the Sreenivasan Affair in 1963 to the eventual modifications made to the Constitution of the University and the Students’ Union in 1976 that marked ‘the end of student activism’.[6] Roland Puccetti depicts the Affair as one of the ‘Ghosts from the Past’ that illuminated the tensions between the university and the state as he recounted the demonstration of PAP belligerence within the University during his tenure in the University’s Philosophy Department.[7] The Enright Affair would also continue to be referred to by the students during clashes with the government over university autonomy.University of Singapore Students’ Union Handbooks, presented to freshmen every new academic year, laud the Students’ Union’s place in defending the University from threats to its autonomy, and unwaveringly cite the Enright Affair as the first of several rows with the government.[8]

In 1966, a writer in the Malayan Undergrad, the organ of the university’s Students’ Union again invoked the Affair as an example of the government’s continued violation of the university’s autonomy.[9]Professor Koh Tai Ann, herself part of a generation of English-language writers and cultural commentators who continue to bear fond memories of their erudite Professor of English, sees the Affair as ‘another instance of student opposition’ in the series of conflicts between the PAP government and the University’s student body, which made university and academic freedom ‘very lively issues’ among the students.[10]

With the effective depoliticization of the University of Singapore after 1976 however, the Enright Affair’s relevance to the University faded, along with radical student activism that perturbed relations between the two institutions of state and university. In reflecting on his days as a student activist in the early years of University of Malaya, Dr M.K. Rajakumar spoke of his amazement at his cohorts’ ‘idealism and innocence’, which contrasted strongly with a prevailing sense of apathy among university students today.[11] Similarly, Professor Koh would compare Singapore’s university students today with the students of her era who ‘did not have the same total awe of politicians who came to persuade us to support what they were doing.’[12] Yet, more than four decades after the Enright Affair, and in a radically altered environment of student political activity, the event would be deployed as a meaningful metaphor, ‘perhaps the most high-profile clash between an academic and the Government’, invoked in a newspaper review addressing the question of the existence of academic freedom in Singapore after Britain’s Warwick University decided against establishing a local branch campus in October 2005 because of the ‘worries over the lack of academic freedom.’[13]

Enright’s memorialization within the institutional memory of the University itself encounters dissonance and hints at the shifting identities of NUS. An earlier commemorative history focused on charting the University’s growth and development in tandem with the Singapore nation-state planted responsibility for the initial conflict squarely on Enright’s shoulders, for ‘taking a dig at the policy to create a national culture’, which was unacceptable to a new government ‘full of fervour for social reform’. In this representation, the dramatic aftermath and involvement of the students were whitewashed by a single statement that ‘in the ensuing fracas, the Enright camp appealed for the right to speak freely in an academic institution.’[14]

It was only in a recent centennial commemorative volume, significantly titled Imagination, Openness & Courage, that he was embraced as one of ‘Three Wise Men’, and a more balanced portrayal of the event presented.[15] This depiction may have been enabled, and in fact welcomed in light of the Warwick University issue, by NUS’ re-corporatization and acquisition of greater autonomy from 2005 onwards, and its interest in formulating and privileging an institutional heritage in which to root, buttress and accompany an identity as a global knowledge enterprise which transcends, without necessarily sacrificing, its role as a ‘national university’. One pervasive theme is ‘openness’ and NUS would naturally be interested in reconciling itself with chapters of its history in order to exorcize ghosts from its past which may haunt it, for example its record with university autonomy and academic freedom, even as it projects an image of being an open institution which encourages intellectual ferment and creative freedom.

Another retrospective reading of the Affair would see it become associated with the Singapore government’s repression of oppositional voices. In a book which emphasizes the PAP’s record of crushing dissent, Chris Lydgate presents a slanted representation of the Affair to suit his scathing condemnation of PAP’s assault on “yellow culture” as an ‘assault on free expression’. He also portrays Enright as a dissenter who was ‘upbraided’ by the PAP.[16] The Affair is also remembered in relation to the government’s restriction of intellectual space. Political scientist Chan Heng Chee had written a harsh piece criticizing the PAP’s treatment of intellectuals critical of government policy in the 1970s.[17] Twenty-four years later, Professor Koh would refer to Chan’s article to comment on the role of intellectuals in civil society. She locates the Enright Affair together with the Catherine Lim Affair of 1994 to underline a lack of alteration in PAP’s intolerance towards intellectual criticisms of state policies with regards to cultural or political governance.[18] More poignantly, local poet Alfian Sa’at alludes to the Enright Affair in a section of his poem “Singapore you are not my country”:

How dare you call me a chauvinist, an opposition party, a liar, a traitor, a mendicant professor, a Marxist homosexual communist pornography banned literature chewing gum liberty smuggler?…[19]

Although he knew little about the Affair, it had acquired significance for him because of how ‘it seemed to presage the Catherine Lim affair’ and resonated with the banning of performance art and Forum Theatre in 1994. He identified with the issue of the curtailment of intellectual space engendered in the Affair in two principal ways – firstly that ‘one could apparently be discredited if one is not somehow a legitimate commentator’ and secondly that ‘the Enright case can be seen as one of those episodes which in a sense pitted the artist against the State’, including the Josef Ng case.[20] Thus, despite being unaware of the details of the Affair, Sa’at read both political and cultural meanings in it and positioned it within a series of state repressions of cultural producers and intellectuals.

While the Affair was remembered by others for its political implications and ramifications, other cultural commentators position the Affair in relation to the cultural concerns that had provoked the altercation between Enright and the PAP stalwarts in the first place – the campaign against yellow culture and the attempt to forge a national culture. After the turn of the century, when the issue of culture seemed to be re-invigorated with a new intensity, Yao Souchou and C.J.W.-L Wee situate the Enright Affair within a discourse of PAP’s search for ‘a new Asian identity’ and a ‘“East Asian modernity”’ in a postcolonial world via modifying or discarding cultural and ideological traditions inherited from the West.[21]

Similarly, Professor Philip Holden sees the debate between Enright and Rajaratnam’s positions on culture decades ago as resonant with ‘the current debates over East Asian modernity and “Asian values in embryo.’[22] Wee too discusses the Affair as an incident which revealed PAP’s rejection of ‘any organic thinking on national culture’ and preference for a view of culture as ‘a key part of what nation-building meant and still means in the country’ – the creation of a national culture ‘is a matter of practical politics… [and] nation-building.’[23]

The “Enright Affair” resonates within several intersecting discourses which reveals tensions within and between the Singapore state and society across different domains and contexts. As an example of PAP’s interference with university autonomy, the Enright Affair had been positioned as the first major clash between the PAP and the University, not least because the students viewed their strong stand in the conflict as a mark of triumph. Others viewed the Affair as a precedent demonstrating PAP’s disdain for foreigners’ intrusion into domestic politics or for dissenting voices, and its strict insistence on cultural management and keeping tight reins on cultural production. How different subjectivities have remembered and connected this past event to the present illuminates both their positions and concerns in the present and the relevance of discovering the multifarious connections between Singapore’s national university and the broader state and society through examining the hitherto marginalized moments of the University’s past. Some salient issues underpinning and engendered by the Enright Affair remain starkly alive and relevant today, albeit within differing contexts and circumstances, for example the ideological distance between the government and local university students that seemed to have re-opened in recent years and the divide between Singapore’s cultural producers, and the state on certain aspects of cultural production in Singapore. It becomes fitting to recount an anecdote told by Professor Holden, from the same department Dennis Enright headed decades ago.

In a class on the place of writers in Singapore, his students were asked to consider Enright’s offending remarks and views on cultural freedom and to participate in a discussion of two positions. The first was Enright as a ‘residual colonialist’ who did not understand ‘the importance of cultural autonomy in Singapore’ and thus was ‘unwittingly patronizing’, and the second ‘an idea of artistic liberation or autonomy that transcended the immediate specifics of the case’. Despite having made known the historical circumstances surrounding the Affair:

What I was surprised by was that no one in a quite active class was willing to entertain position 1), and there was a great deal of sympathy for Enright’s views, despite the fact that we’d already been over and critiqued Arnoldian views of the transcendental nature of art. When I pushed students further, I remember one saying that if you looked at today’s context in Singapore, Enright’s views were still very relevant and indeed correct–coming to a Singapore situation, students (and not all were Singaporeans–we had a couple of quite good international students) tended to prefer not to read the incident in its historical context but rather in terms of how it related to present-day policy in the arts.[24]



[1]Straits Times 23.10.1994; Straits Times 24.10.1994; Straits Times 11.01.2003.

[2] Tommy Koh [et al.], Singapore: The Encyclopedia. (Singapore : Editions Didier Millet, 2006), p. 143.

[3] Speech by the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, On Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility at the Historical Society, University of Singapore, November 24 1966.

[4] William Walsh, D. J. Enright : Poet of Humanism (London: Cambridge University Press 1974), p. 18; Koh Tai Ann, “The Mendicant Professor” in Jacqueline Simms (ed). Life by Other Means: Essays on D. J. Enright (New York : Oxford University Press 1990), p. 21.

[5] Dennis Joseph Enright, Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor (London : Chatto & Windus 1969), pp. 147-148.

[6] C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore: 1819-1988 (Singapore : Oxford University Press 1989), p. 309. The Sreenivasan Affair of 1963 saw the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Dr. B.R. Sreenivasan, fiercely resisting the government’s attempt to force the University to reject students deemed or suspected of being subversive from admission into the University. Sreenivasan’s justification was that university admission should be based on academic merit and not political considerations. He eventually resigned after the government, in response, made unmasked threats about the severance of funding to the university.

[7] Roland Puccetti, “Authoritarian Government and Academic Subservience”, inMinerva, Vol. X No. 2 (April 1972), p. 224.

[8] USSU Union Handbooks 1961-1972.

[9] Malayan Undergrad Vol. 15 No. 3 March (April 1966), p. 7.

[10] Koh Tai Ann, “The World of the English-educated in the 1960s and 1970s: An Interview with Koh Tai Ann”, transcribed by Teng Siao See; translated by Lee Chih Horng, Sng Tuan Hwee, Goh Sin Hwee. Tangent, No. 6 (April 2003), pp. 265-267.

[11] Dr. M.K. Rajakumar in P C Shivadas (ed), University of Malaya : 1949-1989(Kuala Lumpur : Organising Committee of the Fortieth Anniversary of the Founding of University Education in Malaysia and Singapore 1989), p. 64.

[12] Koh Tai Ann, “The World of the English-educated in the 1960s and 1970s”, p. 267.

[13] Straits Times 22.10.2005.

[14] Edwin Lee & Tan Tai Yong, Beyond degrees : the making of the National University of Singapore (Singapore : Singapore University Press 1996), pp. 131-132.

[15] NUS, Imagination, openness & courage : the National University of Singapore at 100 (Singapore : NUS 2006), p. 143. See Appendix 4.

[16] Chris Lydgate, Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent (Melbourne : Scribe Publications 2003), pp. 34-36.

[17] Chan Heng Chee “The Role of Intellectuals in Singapore Politics: An Essay” in Verinder Grover (ed), Singapore: Government and Politics, (New Delhi : Deep & Deep 2000), p. 126.

[18] Koh Tai Ann , “The Role of the Intellectuals in Civil Society: Going Against the Grain?”, in Gillian Koh & Ooi Giok-ling (eds), State-society relations in Singapore(Singapore : Institute of Policy Studies : Oxford University Press 2000), p. 14. The Catherine Lim affair refers to the case of local writer Catherine Lim being chided by the government for writing an article criticizing the government for being more authoritarian than consultative.

[19] Alfian Sa’at, One Fierce Hour (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1998), p. 38

[20] Email correspondence with Alfian Sa’at. The Josef Ng case refers to the incident where a performance artist, Josef Ng snipped his pubic hair in public as a protest against punitive police tactics. He was fined by the government, which also banned all performances without fixed scripts.

[21] Yao Souchou. Singapore: The State and the Culture of Excess (Oxon : Routledge 2007), p. 62; C.J.W.-L. Wee, Culture, empire, and the question of being modern (Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books 2003), p. 204.

[22] Philip Holden, “On the Nation’s margins: The Social Place of Literature in Singapore”, in Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 15, No. 1, (April 2000), pp. 37-38.

[23] Wee, Culture, Empire and the Question of Being Modern, p. 204.

[24] Email correspondence with Professor Philip Holden.

Edgar Liao is currently pursuing his M.A. in the Department of History, NUS and is studying the political, ideological and cultural dimensions of student politics and activism in the University of Malaya/Singapore.

Tags: cultural politics, education, student activism

Once Upon a Time, a Mendicant Professor in Singapore: Remembering the Enright Affair (November 1960)

Before Hudud: Chink in Malaysia’s Islamic Armour

New York

June 21, 2016

Before Hudud: Chink in Malaysia’s Islamic Armour

by Lim Teck Ghee

In December 2015 Mansour Jamal Ibrahim, a 22 year old Muslim student studying in Belgium wrote a post, “Racism in the Muslim community: Are we really one?” in the website, MVSLIM.

In it he addressed the following observation which should  be a wake up call to the Islamic world:

The Muslim community is a global community of diversity, variety and color.

We are taught to accept every Muslim (and non-Muslim) with complete disregard to their color, nationality or ethnicity. Yet somehow black Muslims (and Muslims of color in general) experience racism for our brothers and sisters in Islam.

Every attempt to tackle these issues has been swept underneath the rug with the phrase “One Ummah brother, we accept no racism in Islam”. How can you explain the feeling of superiority towards black and brown people?

In our part of the world, the issue of racism in our national version of Islam has similarly been swept under the carpet as in the case with black and other coloured Muslims.

Some may argue that this issue or allegation arises from a misleading or imagined perception. That it is really a problem trotted out by enemies of the religion, and not worthy of attention.But can we dismiss it so easily?

To understand or make sense of any phenomenon of prejudicial thinking, we need to first test the assumption or hypothesis; that is, we need to determine scientifically whether it is true or untrue.

We know that racism has no biological or apparently religious basis. But could it in reality be deeply embedded in the religious sector just as it has permeated into every other pore of Malaysian society and life?

Acknowledging the reality of racism and therefore asking difficult questions about it is possibly the biggest hurdle to overcome in helping the country fight against this dehumanizing ideology. This hurdle is one which mainstream and establishment Islamic organizations as well as progressive Islamic NGOs and think tanks are either indifferent to, or regard as unworthy of concern.

Although hundreds, if not thousands, of workshops and forums have been held on a vast variety of Islamic subject matters, there is none that appears to have directly dealt with this apparently “taboo” topic.

It is noteworthy too that our foremost Islamic body, the National Council for Islamic Affairs (JAKIM), which has issued numerous edicts that have legal implications such as ruling against Muslims practicing yoga (yoga is seen to have elements of other religions that could corrupt Muslims) apparently has nothing to say about the issue of racism in Malaysia’s Islam; what racial acts are to be deemed haram or halal; etc.

We have also heard little or nothing of our Islamic and religious leaders’ ability to cite parts of the holy Koran dealing with race or race relations that may serve as an example to the Muslim or even non-Muslim community.

Second Class Muslims

One exception though has been Dr Mahathir who, in his capacity as patron of Perkim or the Muslim Welfare Organization of Malaysia, referred to the plight of new converts. We all know that Dr Mahathir is very adept at calling a spade a spade. At the same time he can be the most circuitous of leaders when it suits his objective.

Speaking at a Perkim event in the country in December last year, Dr. Mahathir, although avoiding the “racism” word, called on Malay Muslims to treat new converts as brothers in the following way:

“There should be no discrimination. Sometimes we feel that they are ‘second-class Muslims’. That is wrong. There is no difference between one Muslim and another except from the view of ‘taqwa’ (piety/fear of Allah). That (Taqwa) is the only thing that differentiates us,” he was reported to have said to reporters.

Ironically, the two-day seminar was aimed at strengthening Muslim solidarity and to serve as a platform to gather opinions in uniting Muslims.

To any outside observer, it is very clear that unless and until the issue of racism in Islam is addressed and resolved – within and outside the Muslim community – most people in the minority religious and ethnic groups will not see any reason why they should consider embracing the brotherhood of Islam, either through conversion or other means.

And that surely is a fatal blow to the dream of Islamic authorities who would like to see a more Islamic country in every way possible.

Zakir Naik, during his recent tour, may have showcased one or several converts to his audience but this must be considered poor – even paltry – returns on the conversion front, given the enormous resources put into the government’s Islamic missionary and conversion machine

To be fair, it needs to be pointed out that it is not just in Malaysia’s Islam that we need to ask the race question. Other religions in the country also need to ask similar questions of their faith and congregation; and the way their faith treats members of minority communities – whether converts or not; doctrinal and in actuality.

An inter-faith dialogue on this would be useful. It would certainly be an improvement on the present state of religious discussion which seems to be stuck endlessly on the “hudud” question.



Malaysia’s Budaya Tipu in Academia

June 20, 2015

New York City

Malaysia’s  Budaya Tipu–Academic Plagiarism and Intellectual Fraud

 by Rom Nain
COMMENT: Malaysian Higher Education, evidently, is once again in the limelight. Once again, for the wrong reasons.

Over the past couple of days, news has gone around that four researchers from a local public university had deliberately manipulated images in a co-authored article published in a prestigious international academic journal.

The four, from Universiti Malaya (UM) – our oldest and,  often enough claimed, our most prestigious, public university – were initially accused of duplicating and manipulating images of cells in their article.

An article which allegedly had three versions was published in three separate journals. Sadly for them – and certainly for UM – the allegations initially exploded over the scientific community’s social media and then spread to other platforms, finally catching the attention of the mainstream scientific media.

The main author, not surprisingly, initially brushed off the charges, providing ‘reasons’ that even non-scientists who had examined the article found rather incredulous.

Now, it has come to the attention of the Malaysian Higher Education Ministry and the authorities at UM. And UM has acted swiftly enough to investigate yet another potential scandal and possibly discipline any wrongdoers.

There will surely be more revealed over the next few days and, I’m sure, there will be demands that the heads of the four researchers, if found guilty, roll. But will they? And even if they do, will the wider problems be resolved?

Going by previous incidences of this nature, one doubts anything major will be resolved. In 1994 a professor at the same Universiti Malaya went to court to defend herself against allegations of plagiarising the work of her students. Despite the evidence, she remains a professor till this day.

A couple of years back, the infamous Ridhuan Tee, while an Associate Professor at the Armed Forces University, was accused of plagiarism as well. Again, despite the clear evidence, he was able to move to another university on the east coast, getting a promotion to full professor to boot. That is classic Malaysian academic culture.

Then there is the infamous University of Bath-UiTM debacle earlier this year, when graduates from the UK university discovered that their theses had somehow found their way into UiTM’s repository, with UiTM’s copyright and watermark on them.

UiTM, predictably, apologised, asserting that it was a technical error that had caused it all. It is still unclear today why the Bath papers were gifted to UiTM by a staff member, and whether she or he had the right to do so.

Fundamental issues of Integrity–The meaning of the word Integrity.

Needless to say, there are a number of things we can – and must – take away from these cases that strike at the core of fundamental issues of integrity. Namely, the integrity of individuals, the integrity of the Malaysian academic profession and, yes, the integrity of our institutions.

It is, after all, easy to apportion blame to individuals, such as the four UM researchers or the professors who blatantly plagiarised the works of others But, unfortunately, these cases – alleged by many in Malaysian academia as barely ‘scratching the surface’ – will continue if the core issues and problems are not located and sincerely addressed.

Of course, one could say that they indulge in these activities because they feel they can ‘get away with it’. But why do they do it in the first place? And why does it seem so prevalent these days?

To begin to answer these questions, we would have to at least go back to this relatively recent phenomenon of university academics needing to meet pre-determined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

But, unfortunately, these cases – alleged by many in Malaysian academia as barely ‘scratching the surface’ – will continue if the core issues and problems are not located and sincerely addressed.Of course, one could say that they indulge in these activities because they feel they can ‘get away with it’. But why do they do it in the first place? And why does it seem so prevalent these days?

To begin to answer these questions, we would have to at least go back to this relatively recent phenomenon of university academics needing to meet pre-determined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Pre-determined, often enough, by university administrators more concerned about pleasing their political masters than they are about the welfare of their staff and, even less, about any commitment to a particular academic ethos.

Hence, meaningful university teaching and research be damned. Instead, a bureaucratic or mechanistic view of what higher education, particularly the role of universities and academics, is advanced. Indeed, in Malaysian academia, increasingly it has become a case of institutions and individuals having to meet certain, often quantifiable and quantitative, targets.

And achieving high international rankings yearly has become the name of the game. For some public universities, especially those designated as `research’ universities, publishing in top-tier Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) and Scopus journals now is the main, sometimes determining, criterion for promotion.

It is within this cauldron of quite rapid change and shifting of priorities – often directed by politicians and their ministries – that we find many of our public universities and their faculty members.

Things have gotten worse for Malaysia under Najib Razak

This, of course, hadn’t been the case for a long time. Indeed, it could be argued that the slide began the moment politics and notions of what has derogatorily been called kulitocracy (skin based meritocracy) took top priority from the 1980s onward.

Policies that led to the recruitment of faculty due to their skin tone and, more subtly, their political affiliation, rather than the grey matter in their head, led to a culture of conformity and mediocrity being developed. For some critics this gradually replaced the emphasis on dedicated teaching and learning, and doing good research that had been cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Carma’ academics

This was facilitated by (administrative) structures that policies and strategies that (still) disproportionately reward what the national laureate, A Samad Said, has rightly called the ‘carma’ (cari makan) academics.

These often are the apple polishers, those who turn academia into an arena where rapid advancement means getting on with their bosses and courting top UMNO leaders and moving up the administrative ladder; from section to department head, to program chair, to head of school, to dean, deputy vice-chancellor and vice-chancellor. Stopping briefly on the way, of course,to obtain a datoship from corrupt political leaders.

And this group has grown significantly as the number of public universities has rapidly increased. Often quite clueless as to what constitutes good – let alone path-breaking and innovative – research, yet now needing to ‘publish or perish’, they look high and low for the ‘right’ ingredients, however “halal” or “haram”, to enable them to come up not only with publishable papers in referred journals, but also those that often have to meet international criteria and standards for scholarly research and peer recognition.

Unfortunately, when the environment all this while has not helped to nurture whatever research and writing skills they may have, and they now have to regularly produce ‘international’ publications, many find themselves in a ethical quandary.

And so the illicit options become more enticing.Indeed, more widespread, arguably, is this practice of putting one’s name as a co-researcher on the work done by one’s research assistant or graduate student. Even when all the work was done solely by another person.

Of course, dodgy publishing houses have cottoned on to this widespread desperation by academics. So, we have the case of academics (often aided by their institutions) paying substantial sums to purportedly international publishers to get their articles published in  journals and books of questionable quality.

Needless to say, it is within this wider context – of dodgy academic standards, a legacy of a mediocre research culture and environment and a rapidly changing academic milieu and, of course, a general lack of integrity from the top downwards – that we have to locate the alleged offences committed by the UM4 and others.

Virtually nothing happens in a vacuum. Yes, if found guilty, the wrongdoers must be truly punished – and not just transferred to some other university where they are promoted later.

But issues of integrity, dignity and ethics will not and cannot be simply resolved that way. More detailed and critical examination of the environment, the policies and the strategies that have led to this sorry state of affairs, will need to be conducted.

This would require political will–this is sadly lacking in Malaysia today– and a genuine commitment to removing the rot that has set in public – and increasingly private – universities. And I don’t believe that many of us are so sanguine as to believe that this will happen any time soon under this regime.

Read more:

The Building Blocks of Learning

June 15, 2016

The Building Blocks of Learning

The inner life of a restless intellect

May 24, 2016

Benedict Anderson

Indonesian scholar

The inner life of a restless intellect

May 21st 2016 | From the print edition


IN SOUTH-EAST Asia Benedict Anderson, who died last December aged 79, was an intellectual giant. In 1966 he was part of a team at Cornell University that published an influential report on what really happened during the violent takeover of Indonesia in October of the previous year. The report was leaked to the Washington Post and Anderson was eventually barred from entering the country.

He remained cut off from Indonesia for 27 years until the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. But he found new passions, studying Thailand and the Philippines. In 1983 his meandering studies and wide reading led him to write the book he is most famous for, “Imagined Communities”, which explores the enduring allure of nationalism.

Benedict Anderson: Ilmuwan Amerika Pencinta Indonesia

by Yogira

Ada beberapa ilmuwan dan cendikiawan warga negara asing [WNA], yang sangat  mencintai Indonesia, bahkan akhirnya jadi WNI. Salah satunya Benedict Anderson.

Sejak dulu keilmuan seputar Indonesia mendapat selalu mendapat perhatian publik dunia. Mereka mengkaji berbagai bidang sesuai minat dan latarbelakang pendidikannya. Sekedar menyebut beberapa nama:  A. Teeuw, Katrin Bandel, Berthold Damshäuser [pengkaji kesusastraan Indonesia], Dieter Mack [pengkaji musik gamelan], Franz Magnis Suseno [pengkaji filsafat dan budaya Indonesia], dan Benedict Anderson [pengkaji sejarah dan budaya Indonesia]. Menariknya, Saking terlanjur mencintai Indonesia, di antara mereka akhirnya mengukuhkan diri sebagai Warga Negara Indonesia [WNI]. Sebutan “Indonesianis” pun melekat pada dirinya.

Baru-baru ini, Indonesia kehilangan salah satu indonesianis. Ya, Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, meninggal di Batu, Malang, Sabtu malam [12/12]. Ilmuwan asal Amerika yang lebih dikenal dengan nama Ben Anderson ini wafat pada usia 79.

Ben adalah professor emeritus bidang studi internasional Universitas Cornell, Amerika. Sebelum meninggal, Ben sempat memberi kuliah umum tentang Anarkisme dan Sosialisme di Universitas Indonesia. Dia juga tengah menyiapkan bedah buku terbarunya bertajuk Di Bawah Tiga Bendera.

Ilmuwan kelahiran Kunming, China, 26 Agustus 1936 ini menerbitkan banyak karya tulis, baik dalam bentuk buku, jurnal, maupun artikel, antara lain:  Imagined Communities, Debating World Literature, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, dan Java in a Time of Revolution. Banyak karyanya yang menjadi rujukan studi mahasiswa dan akademisi. Bahkan Imagines Communities jadi salah satu  karyanya yang paling monumental.

Penjelajahan intelektual Ben di Indonesia menularkan kajian-kajian kritis, yang sempat ‘memanaskan’ kuping rezim Orde Baru lantaran pandangan dan analisinya berbau “kekiri-kirian”. Imbasnya, dia dilarang masuk Indonesia. Setelah Soeharto lengser, Ben kembali ke Indonesia untuk berkutat dengan keilmuannya.

Selama tinggal di Indonesia, Ben kerapkali berkunjung ke berbagai daerah untuk menjalani penelitian. Dari hasil beberapa kali kunjungan itulah, dia semakin suntuk mendalami Indonesia, terutama dari aspek sosial dan budaya. Salah satu yang menjadi cirikhas Ben dalam menulis adalah, ia acap menggunakan Bahasa Indonesia ejaan lama dalam beberapa tulisannya.    

Selamat tinggal Om Ben. Sumbangsihmu untuk Indonesia semoga terus berharga.

[][teks @firza/berbagai sumber | foto,]

Outside South-East Asian circles, Anderson’s prolific and diverse output is more obscure. This should change with the publication of his memoir, “A Life Beyond Boundaries”. As the title suggests, Anderson is an enemy of the bubble, whether nation, school or language. He returns again and again to an image in Thai and Indonesian cultures of a frog who lives its entire life under half of a coconut shell. “Sitting quietly under the shell, before long the frog begins to feel that the coconut bowl encloses the entire universe,” he writes. “The moral judgment in the image is that the frog is narrow-minded, provincial, stay-at-home and self-satisfied for no good reason. For my part, I stayed nowhere long enough to settle down in one place, unlike the proverbial frog.”

Reading Anderson feels like emerging from the coconut shell. You come away wanting to see films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai film-maker he admired, to learn Tagalog on the side or to read a grand Filipino novel, “Noli Me Tangere” (“Touch me not”), by José Rizal, which Anderson tried to translate line by line in an effort to learn Spanish. He praised Indonesia’s great young novelist, Eka Kurniawan.

Born in 1936 in Kunming, in Yunnan province, to an Irish father and an English mother, Anderson (pictured in China with his nanny) moved to Ireland, along with his two siblings, in 1945 after a brief period in America. His father died soon after; his mother became a guiding force. Anderson went to Eton and then to Cambridge, before going to Cornell as a teaching assistant. There, he met George Kahin, a leading expert on Indonesia whose lectures set Anderson on his path. This willingness to be open to new experiences and challenges was the key to his brilliance.

“Scholars who feel comfortable with their position in a discipline, department or university will try neither to sail out of harbour nor to look for a wind,” he writes, paraphrasing an expression in Indonesia. “But what is to be cherished is the readiness to look for that wind and the courage to follow it when it blows in your direction.” Although “A Life Beyond Boundaries” is about the life of a scholar, it is asides like these that give the book a universal touch. Anderson went to three privileged institutions of learning. They could have given him many opportunities to remain in his bubble. But he just wasn’t that kind of frog.

Psychology matters a great deal

May 1, 2016

Psychology matters a great deal in determining shifts in the economy.

by Robert J. Shiller
“We don’t know whether any specific event — say, an unexpected spike in oil prices or a decline in the stock market — will help transform any of the current social stories into a truly virulent economic disruption. We don’t know what is coming or when. But history does tell us that human imagination can spontaneously transform discrete events into world-shaking narratives of unexpected colour and force.”– Robert Shiller –Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics 2013

Economists are good at measuring the past but inconsistent at forecasting future events, particularly recessions. That’s because recessions aren’t caused merely by concrete changes in the markets. Beliefs and stories passed on by thousands of individuals are important factors, maybe even the main ones, in determining big shifts in the economy.

That is likely to be the case again, whenever we next endure a global recession. Worries that a big downturn might be imminent seem to have abated, but they still abound. In April, for example, the International Monetary Fund reported in its World Economic Outlook that while very modest growth is likely this year, the world economy was in a “fragile conjuncture.”

It is therefore worth asking what actually sets off a real global recession. Most discussions focus on leading indicators — statistics about economic variables that have preceded recessions. While these kinds of correlations can sometimes be useful in forecasting, they provide little understanding of why major changes are taking place. Leading indicators don’t usually address ultimate causes, nor do econometric models that try to predict events.

In fact, it’s instructive to remember that global recessions have usually begun suddenly and been a real surprise to most people. As I have argued in this column and with George A. Akerlof in Animal Spirits (Princeton 2009), such events can largely be ascribed ultimately to contagious stories of wide significance. Basically, global recessions tend to begin when newly popular narratives reduce individuals’ motivation to spend money. Psychology matters a great deal.

The biggest recession of all, the Great Depression, began suddenly with the stock market crash of October 1929, as Christina Romer, former chairwoman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, pointed out in a famous paper. Even before 1929 was over, she found, department store sales and automobile registrations had declined, indicating that consumer spending had already dropped sharply. But why?

Economists were alarmed by the crash, she found, and their warnings helped make consumers wary. But let’s not overestimate the importance of these economic forecasts: Most people never actually read them. They received their information from other channels.

Back then, immediately after the market crash, church sermons were a powerful influence. Congregations were told that many business people had behaved like gamblers and hucksters. Through these sermons and other word-of-mouth sources, moralising about the stock market crash spread, affecting mass psychology. Frederick Lewis Allen, in the epilogue to his 1931 best-seller Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, wrote that cultural values changed after the crash: People began to dress more modestly, adopting a new formality and religiosity, reviving Victorian sexual taboos. It is reasonable to assume that many of these changes had an economic impact, mainly by discouraging spending.

Similarly in more recent downturns, broad cultural and social changes had big effects, too. Since World War II, there have been four global recessions, according to the International Monetary Fund, which defines such an event very specifically as negative global per capita economic growth over at least one year. In each case, these recessions lasted only one year, although relatively slow economic growth rates were also an issue in periods surrounding them. The recessions ended in 1975, 1982, 1991 and 2009.

As they had with the Great Depression, economists have cited concrete causes for these events. Oil has been named as a fundamental factor in each case, with price spikes blamed on the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Iran-Iraq War beginning in 1980, the 1990-91 Persian Gulf war and rising energy demand in China and other emerging countries in 2008.

Broader social narratives are sometimes ignored, but they matter, too. Consider the recession of 1975. Along with oil prices, common ways of understanding and describing daily life also changed. The oil crisis was widely said to signal the end of an era of abundance. Lower highway speed limits were imposed to conserve fuel, and cars grew smaller. Americans were told to lower their home thermostats to 68 degrees. In large numbers, people began wearing sweatsuits, flannel leg warmers, thermal underwear and long johns. Among all this austerity, economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 best-seller Small Is Beautiful became a global morality lesson.

Let’s jump to the most recent global recession, the one of 2009. Oil prices, subprime mortgages and the freezing up of the financial system after the collapse of Lehman Brothers were all important factors. But why did we have a global recession? The transformation of distinct events into a broad global slowdown occurred through a variety of mechanisms. Reports about financial misdoings, the possible collapse of venerable institutions, rising unemployment caused by advanced technology — all of these affected the psychology of spending.

Where does this leave us now? No single narrative seems to have enough compelling force at the moment to engender a downturn as big as the last one. Many people have been borrowing from older narratives of risk and vulnerability while trying to understand the current economy. Oil prices have been slumping, not soaring, but there are significant worries about outsourcing, downsizing and globalisation, along with deep concerns about rising inequality, refugee and immigrant flows, and what has been called secular stagnation of the economy. Political candidates on both the left and the right have been spinning charged and sometimes disruptive narratives about these issues.

We don’t know whether any specific event — say, an unexpected spike in oil prices or a decline in the stock market — will help transform any of the current social stories into a truly virulent economic disruption. We don’t know what is coming or when. But history does tell us that human imagination can spontaneously transform discrete events into world-shaking narratives of unexpected colour and force.



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