‘Kowtowing v-cs’ denounced by former Malaysian education minister

University leaders would not exercise freedom even if the state did not have them under its thumb, says Maszlee Malik

September 20, 2021
View of the Prime Minister's office from the Seri Gemilang Bridge in the planned city of Putrajaya south of Kuala Lumpur
Source: iStock

Malaysian higher education’s biggest constraint is not state control but compliant vice-chancellors, according to former education minister Maszlee Malik.

Dr Maszlee said universities’ current leaders had obtained their positions by “kowtowing to the politicians” and would continue doing so. “Sometimes the problem is not with the state but with the academics themselves,” he told a webinar organised by German thinktank Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Malaysia. “A lot – not a few, a lot – of our fellow academics kowtow to the regime at the expense of academic freedom.”

As education minister in the short-lived Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the former academic did not fulfil his ambition to repeal the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) over its restrictions to academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

And while he drafted changes to a separate law known as Act 605, also blamed for stifling academic freedom, the amendments faltered after he was ousted from Cabinet a month before the PH government itself collapsed in February 2020.

Act 605 prescribes disciplinary proceedings against staff of statutory bodies, including universities. With Malaysian politics now back under the sway of the traditional heavyweight party, the United Malays National Organisation, the will to change the law appears to have evaporated.

Dr Maszlee said revisions of Act 605 could have produced a “huge change in the landscape of our academic freedom” but may not have resolved “self-censorship” by “non-productive intellects” whose main contribution was “parroting” other researchers.

He condemned the “complacency” of academics focused on feathering their nests rather than solving society’s problems. “As long as they achieve their key performance indicators and get promoted…that’s the main purpose of their academic journey. Real academics should be problem-solvers of the nation, not problem spectators and commentators,” Dr Maszlee said.

International Islamic University Malaysia economist Mohamed Aslam told the webinar that “internal inertia” was a bigger constraint than “dominance of politicians”.

“We have UUCU and 605, but…even without those things it may be difficult to get academics to speak out on issues. Malaysians are very happy to listen to what the bosses say and do it without any question.”

Geoffrey Williams, an economist at the Malaysia University of Science and Technology, said the sector was falling short of its mission to create and disseminate knowledge. “We spend far too much time trying to disseminate other people’s knowledge, which we do uncritically in many instances,” he said.

He said academics, particularly in private universities, were “terrified” to contribute to public discussions. “The fear doesn’t come from the government. The fear in the private sector comes from the chancellery and…that it will harm commercial prospects or our licence with the government.”

Professor Williams said academics routinely experienced pressure from their own colleagues “not to get involved in what they consider to be sensitive discussions because they feel it will cause disharmony or [bring] the university to attention”.

But University of Malaya (UM) political economist Terence Gomez disagreed that vice-chancellors actively chose not to exercise their autonomy. “Vice-chancellors are appointed by the government [and if they] try to be independent, our history shows us that they can be removed,” he said.

He cited the case of former UM vice-chancellor Syed Hussein Alatas, who lasted just three years in the position. “He was removed because he challenged the system. This idea [that] vice-chancellors are independent…is not true. When they show autonomy, they get removed – that is the reality.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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