Malaysian progress towards institutional autonomy slows

It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as minister seeks course for freedom

January 15, 2019
Source: Alamy
Change is slow: ‘after so many years of control, of conformity, of being servile, you’ve just lost any sense of being free’

Malaysia is in a bind as its new-broom government strives to jettison the country’s stifling Universities and University Colleges Act.

The Pakatan Harapan administration has made some progress in dismantling the legislation, which restricts freedom of expression and gives the government the right to appoint university leaders.

An amendment passed by the Malaysian parliament’s lower house last month gave students conditional rights to participate in political activities on campus. Education minister Maszlee Malik, a former academic who had proclaimed his desire to abolish the “draconian” act, said that disciplinary and court action against activist students would cease immediately.

The new sense of freedom was underlined when Lim Kit Siang, the long-time leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, addressed the nation’s flagship University of Malaya for the first time in 40 years.

But media scholar Zaharom Nain said that the amendment had tackled only the act’s “low-hanging fruit”. He said that Dr Maszlee faced a more difficult task in discarding the sections that curtailed institutional autonomy.

“It’s too early to say that the change in government has ushered [in] any improvement,” said Professor Zaharom, a communication studies professor at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus and chair of the Malaysian Academic Movement lobby group.

He said that the government faced a catch-22 in its efforts to give universities more autonomy. If it attempted to do so with the “old guard” vice-chancellors still in place, it would strengthen these individuals’ positions on campus and entrench the restrictive environment. But forcing in leaders with an appetite for change would be against the spirit of the autonomy that the government wanted to cultivate.

“There have been a lot of political appointments over the years, and that’s something the minister is very well aware of,” Professor Zaharom said. “They’re pretty powerful people who are used to this feudal system of governance. There’s a whole web of control.”

Prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has complained that civil service “saboteurs” who support the previous regime were hampering reform. But Professor Zaharom said that deep-rooted habit was just as hard to dislodge.

He said that Dr Maszlee deserved credit for telling universities to “open up the gates” and allow in critical voices. But after almost five decades of the act, this would be “like learning to ride a bike”.

“Unfortunately, after so many years of control, of conformity, of being servile, you’ve just lost any sense of being free,” he said.

Some Malaysians have become frustrated at the slow progress in repealing the act, which appears likely to remain in place into next year. Others caution against a rush to discard the legislation.

“You can’t just scrap the UUCA as it also has a lot to do with the day-to-day running and structure of universities,” University of Malaya law lecturer Azmi Sharom told Free Malaysia Today. “A lot of thought needs to go into its replacement.”

Morshidi Sirat, a former director general of Higher Education Malaysia, who also favours a gradual approach, said that Dr Maszlee was “preoccupied” with the school sector in any case. But Professor Morshidi said that the minister had given public universities more “space” to work with the Education Ministry.

He said that universities should capitalise on this by building ties with the “controller of the system”, the secretary general of the ministry. “The secretary general holds the purse strings as public universities do not enjoy financial autonomy.”

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