KUALA LUMPUR: Imagine this – you’ve completed your college education, done some soul-searching, and you decide to take your studies further. You then secure a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in an area you’re passionate about. Sounds heavenly, right?
But Sarah Wijesinghe’s new book “The Illusions of Freedom” suggests otherwise. In brutally honest reflection, the 33-year-old takes readers on the tumultuous journey of being a doctoral student in Malaysia.
Wijesinghe writes honestly with the voice of someone who has the benefit of hindsight. The Sri Lankan native, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, came up with the title in April 2021 during a rough patch as an academic.
That September, she began piecing together the story that would become the 234-page book.
“I personally witnessed and experienced many toxic realities in higher education in Malaysia,” she told FMT Lifestyle. “I was disheartened to witness what the institution of education has become, and how it has shaped young scholars. I wrote my story to break the silence.
“There is a major silencing culture in academia today, in Malaysia and beyond. In research, it’s not given much attention, but the phenomenon is known as the ‘silenced academic’.”
According to Wijesinghe, this culture is built around the idea of survival. “You can’t speak up because there are consequences, and you can’t speak up because ‘it’s just how things are’.
“There are layers of abuse: gender, race, class, ethnic, age, meritocracy and more. Together, they drive a culture that is slowly destroying the intellectual spirit of the university.”
The book explores the push-and-pull factors at play in certain local universities where quantity, rather than quality, is emphasised.
Having previously studied in the United Kingdom, Wijesinghe often returns to the belief that colonial ideology is pervasive in institutions of higher learning across Asia, including Malaysia, where the “western standard” is prized above all.
This conjured fantasy of well-read and well-intentioned academics is shattered in her narrative, which discusses the power play prevalent in the academic world.
In one chapter, she writes: “The more I listened, the more it became clear that the majority around me were there to safeguard their positions in universities or to pursue the promotion they’ve been thirsting after. It was almost as if without a PhD, an individual was deemed as having less value.
“Apart from having families to maintain and full-time jobs in place, they had the additional task of completing a doctorate, too.”
Amid instances of fraud, sexual harassment and plagiarism, Wijesinghe’s testimony could prompt readers to wonder about the academic integrity of institutions that top the QS University Rankings.
That said, as her experiences primarily revolve around one institution of higher education in Malaysia, it could be argued that it is flawed to paint all universities with the same brush, even if the issues are likely prevalent.
Nevertheless, this eye-opening book is a must-read, especially for those navigating the world of academia. Its message to challenge injustices is a timely and universal one.
“Survival is not wrong, but in the pursuit of it, we should not forget to realise and stand up against the toxic normal,” Wijesinghe concluded. “To question is to be.”
Find out more about ‘The Illusions of Freedom’ here.