Mental slavery blamed for poor scholarship

NUS professor Syed Farid Alatas says Malaysian academia has suffered from decades of imitating the West. (Facebook pic)

PETALING JAYA: Sociologist Syed Farid Alatas has pointed to the low quality of local academic journals as one of the major hindrances to intellectual freedom in Malaysia.

Speaking to FMT, the National University of Singapore professor said Malaysian universities were too dependent on Western knowledge centres for ideas and had thus failed to produce their own.

“They take ideas from Western institutions and scholars and study them as if they are the only ideas out there and apply them in their research.”

He said local institutions should break free from what he called “intellectual imperialism” and suggested that they start by promoting high standards in the publication of local journals in Malay and rewarding academics for having their research published in such journals.

He alleged that there was a severe lack of quality in local publications. “In general, local publishing is of a low standard, whether in the form of journals or books.

“We need to have more pride in local knowledge and publish locally but at the same time maintain very high standards.”

He also called for a change in the reward system. Under the current practice, he alleged, career promotions and other forms of rewards were dependent on how well academics were plugged into the international academic scene.

“In other words, if you publish in international academic journals, in the top journals around the world, that is more heavily regarded than if you publish in Malay in a Malaysian or Indonesian journal,” he said.

The nation’s research agenda would then be naturally tailored to foreign academia, he added.

Farid said the intellectual and political elite had failed to emphasise the need for originality and creativity in the post-colonial period. “The result is decades of imitation,” he added.

He noted that the situation differed from country to country, with some being less affected than others.

“In the Philippines, they had the revolution against the Spaniards and one of the original thinkers behind the revolutionary ideas was Jose Rizal, who was very critical of the way Europeans approached the study of the Philippines,” he said.

Rizal was a nationalist and polymath who was active at the tail end of the Spanish colonial period. He was executed by the Spaniards. Farid said he left a legacy that spurred critical studies in the social sciences and humanities by academic circles in the Philippines.

“Even in Indonesia, there is more interest in these problems than in Malaysia because they fought for independence against the Dutch,” he said.

“When you fight against a ruling regime or a colonial power, you tend to be more critical not only of political and economic exploitation by the colonial power but also of the way they dominate you culturally and ideologically.”

He noted that Malaysia, in contrast, achieved its independence through negotiation.

“I think that’s a major factor,” he said. “Countries which were more revolutionary and fought for independence tend to take a more critical view of colonialism and colonial knowledge.”