Malaysia’s political reform – academic freedom

Towards the end of 2011, several incidents unfolded bringing the issue of academic freedom to the fore of Malaysia’s public discourse. Among them were the demonstrations held to oppose University and University College Act (UUCA 1975), one in PWTC and another in UPSI. Adam Adli and Safwan Anang, emerged as voices to champion the cause. However, we will not discuss demonstrations here, but we will explore briefly the main issue underlying the demonstrations, which is academic freedom. Systematically, we will look into its definition, the examples of the lack of freedom, the solutions and their implications.

Borrowing from The Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education, academic freedom is defined as “the freedom of members of the academic community individually or collectively, in the pursuit, development and transmission of knowledge, through research, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation, teaching, lecturing and writing.” To ascertain whether academic freedom was observed or not, we will use four categories of relationship– academic freedom between government and institutions, administrators and academics, among peers and finally by external factors. By looking at these four categories, we can conclude that academic freedom is rarely observed in Malaysia.

Generally, there are two clear factors that show the absence of academic freedom in local universities.

Firstly, academic institutions are not free politically. Underlying this is the infamous University and University College Act (UUCA 1975). University students and staffs have been denied the right to express support or opposition towards any political organisation. They could also be placed under constant monitoring if they are suspect of violation[1]. Moreover, under the discipline of staff rules, academics are prevented from taking public stands on controversial issues. Imagine the tragedy that befalls a nation when great minds like these are disallowed from steering the political discourse towards a more intellectual tune. Perhaps this is the reason why such hilarity and absurdity is expected when national policies are discussed publicly.

Second, academic institutions are not free administratively. Despite the numerous plans from the Ministry of Higher Education to grant more autonomy to the academic institutions, the practice on the ground shows another story entirely. The power of the state, often times, override the university constitution or by-laws. It is also not unusual for the state to determine the compulsory subjects taught in universities such as Islamic & Asian Civilisation, Thinking Skills and Ethnic Relations which effectiveness are questionable[2]. Furthermore, the issue that academics should worry most is the banning of research topics by the government under the pretext of racial sensitivity and national security. Topics like ethnic conflicts, religious issues and local corruption are amongst them. This is a shame as only with such discourse, will Malaysia be one step closer in resolving long standing contentious issues.

Despite the pessimism, the government has been taking a more liberal stance. In light of recent determined pressure from certain quarters, Prime Minister Najib’s administration in his address to the nation during Malaysia Day 2011, has promised to look into amending section 15 of the act to allow students and faculty members to be members of a political organisations. An exercise which his supporters have claimed to be staying true to the ruling coalition’s pledge of political reform.

But this ‘reform’ only scratches the tip of the iceberg, instead of addressing the crux of the matter. Sure, one could argue that this is a departure from the orthodox method of ‘Government Knows Best’ but if the Prime Minister were to listen very carefully to the people, what they really clamour for is the freedom to express their opinions, exercise their right to take position in controversial national issues and further liberalisation of the academic institution which requires more than the amendment of section 15 of UUCA or repealing it altogether.

Proponents of UUCA often argue that any involvement in politics will only distract students from their true purpose of university education, getting good results in the university exams. This view is highly patronising and does not accord young people their due credit. The main purpose of university education is to attain knowledge broadly and in many ways. If one argues that these graduates lack the basic skill of time management, there is no better way to teach them than to let them manage their own time in universities. Policing them like primary and secondary student will just not do.

Besides that, if the purpose of curbing political activism among students is to create world class Malaysian universities, we should have seen them among the top of the Times Higher Education ranking by now, after more than 30 years of UUCA in effect. The absence of such evidence dispels such notion that focusing on solely academic achievements can propel universities to be at par with world leading universities.

Maybe it is time to learn a thing or two from the top universities by liberalising the restrictions and regulations in local universities and facilitate healthy debates among the university community. One could not deny that we might finally see improvements in their quality once these liberating measures are adopted.

Here, I like propose another solution. As cliché as this might sound, maybe it is time for a real paradigm shift. It is about time that we move away from the mindset that if things go bad, only the government ought to do something about it. Malaysians should realise that each and every one of them is capable of becoming agents of change.

Individuals need to foster or promote academic freedom in their own capacity. Encourage our own children to think freely, ask without fear and discuss rationally. Facilitate their inquisitive mind to reach its full and true potential. At first, they become habits, then they become norms and consequently they will become our culture. When critical mass is reached, no longer will academic freedom be regarded as an alien or a western notion. It will be firmly ingrained as a Malaysian value and fighting for the cause of academic freedom will no longer be a major hurdle.

Here we have touched briefly on the issue of academic freedom. To delve further into the matter would require a more rigorous discussion that would be impossible fit in a short article like this. I hope that with the rest of 2012 yet to unveil itself, my fellow Malaysians will continue to discuss policies that will affect most of us. I hope with further discussion more people will understand this issue and Malaysia will finally have a taste of academic freedom.

Raja Ahmad Iskandar Fareez Raja Shamsul is a recent graduate from the Australian National University and former chairperson of the Malaysian Student’s Council of Australia – Australian Capital Territory Chapter. 

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[1]  John A. Lent, 1979, “ Social Change and the Human Right of Freedom of Expression in Malaysia”

[2] Wan A. Manan (2008), “The Malaysian National Higher Education Action Plan:  Redefining Autonomy and Academic Freedom Under the APEX Experiment”