What Maszlee’s critics don’t understand

A missing dimension in the storm over the appointment of Maszlee Malik as president of his alma mater is the fact that nobody envies him the position.

The current protests in the name of academic freedom suffer from a lack of clear thinking on the part of Maszlee’s critics, the irony being that it is the same problem we find in the thousands of university graduates produced over the last two or three decades.

Maszlee’s critics, from both Pakatan Harapan (PH) and the opposition, argue that a government official – let alone an education minister – should not hold any position of power in a university.

They say it undermines “academic freedom”, the kind of mantras invoked by PH in its list of promises that sent it on a surprise trip to Putrajaya in May.

Really? Does putting Maszlee there – a rookie politician who is probably taking pains to prove that he is the best education minister Malaysia has had in recent times – create problems for a university that has been seeing a decline over the last two decades, not unlike the many others that have mushroomed and been named after past leaders or even GLCs?

When an education minister himself heads a university, it gives us the best opportunity to evaluate not only his commitment to academic freedom, but also his ability to show how a tertiary institution in Malaysia should be.

And that should have been Maszlee’s defence, instead of arguing that it saves cost or expedites efforts to get funding, or is a return to IIUM’s traditions of having a government official as its president.

Perhaps now that he is in charge, Maszlee can finally unlock some mysteries behind the establishment of a university that prides itself on being “international” and “Islamic”.

He could, for example, show that “international” is not only about having many nationalities staying on the same campus, but about how the concept can be translated into our thoughts and culture, including a recognition of the rich diversity of Islamic traditions and schools of thought.

He could, for example, show that “Islamic” is not about making it compulsory for female students and lecturers to cover their hair, or having campus signboards in a Middle Eastern language, but about emulating the methodology of knowledge pioneered by those professing that religion, reconciling with modern demands and realities, cleansing it of all the cosmetics that it gathered as it was dragged into the debris of past Muslim glory.

Maszlee could also increase the non-Muslim student and academic population of IIUM, even allowing them to have their own places of worship on campus, because an Islamic university should reflect the realities of Muslim societies, not be a false Muslim nirvana dreamt up by misguided scholars.

All this Maszlee can do, but only if he is at the helm. And if he succeeds, then good for him, good for IIUM and good for the country’s tertiary education.

As for fears that an education minister could stifle academic freedom, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as part of the “new Malaysia”, he as the varsity president will come under more pressure than any other person to ensure that such freedom is explicitly encouraged.

The truth is, under Maszlee’s leadership IIUM cannot afford to fail, or to play catch-up with any other university that does not have at its top the most powerful person in the country’s education sector.

Fans of academic freedom, including the bunch of hungry kids protesting outside the education ministry, should welcome Maszlee as IIUM president.

It will be a challenge for Maszlee to give meaning to the three magic words of “international”, “Islamic” and even “university”.

And I speak as a former student of IIUM, not someone obsessed with a document or manifesto that we all know could only last as long as the general election campaign.

Abdar Rahman Koya is the editor-in-chief of FMT, and a former student of IIUM.