The fallacy of ‘academic freedom’ in Malaysia

There are two fallacies of academic freedom currently held by activists and academics in Malaysia. The first is that there is no intellectual or academic freedom in the country. The second is that academics must be allowed “total freedom” to say what they wish in the name of the academia.

This essay is to clarify issues such as claims that the education ministry under Maszlee Malik is not living up to the expectation of non-political interference in public universities, as political interference would jeopardise the “sacred” idea of “academic freedom”.

I differ on both fallacies and will explain why. I will also argue that there has always been academic freedom in Malaysian public universities. We have incompetent and opportunistic university leadership and a professorship that likes titles, cars and travelling. But we do have academic freedom.

On the second fallacy, excuse me, but academics cannot say anything they want under the sun. There are frameworks, socio-political contexts and timing to take into consideration when making important and impactful academic statements that will change society.

This may come as a surprise to many, but throughout my 27 years as an academic at a public university, there has always been academic freedom. Despite the silly Akta Universiti hanging around the neck of every academic, I have always felt free to write on most issues, from the architectural criticism of mosques, administrative buildings and campus designs to that of the Prime Minister’s Office.

I began my media writing in 1999, discussing architecture and national identity as well as issues of crime and safety in housing. I worked with media outlets such as the New Straits Times, The Star and Utusan Malaysia. I was offered a column by Utusan for a year, during which I wrote purely about architecture and criticism of mosques and national monuments, arguing on why mosques are not examples of Islamic architecture and why national monuments are more Malay-centric than Malaysian.

When The Star offered me a column, I was excited. I began a different kind of writing, discussing social, religious and political issues as well as their implications on architecture and city planning. The column was a perfect excuse for me to write about politics and society under the guise of architectural academia.

When I thought it was “safe”, I began writing in Malaysiakini on social and religious issues, specifically the deaths of 20 PLKN children and the cow head and Bible burning issues. I also wrote about my thoughts on education in the country.

I also wrote on many non-architectural issues in The Malaysian Insider, The Malaysian Insight and now Free Malaysia Today. Since the mainstream media was either a shameful propaganda machine like Utusan or a closet propaganda machine like The Star, I chose the rising rebellious attitude in the online world. I have had over 200 media articles and interviews over the span of 18 years.

For 15 of those years, I waited for a show-cause letter for disciplinary action, but none came. In August 2014, I wrote an article in an online news portal titled “Raising a family of true Malaysians” where I mentioned that some Chinese students had complained to me that their Malay lecturers of the Titas subject kept belittling and condemning religions other than Islam.

I was summoned to the dean’s office three days later where I had a polite and cordial conversation with the dean, who explained that the university leadership did not like me smearing the university’s good name. I explained that I never meant to smear the university’s name. I said the best Chinese students with first-class distinctions had told me of this bigotry among our academic staff. So instead of reprimanding me, why wasn’t the university launching an investigation?

Since the dean was insistent that I stop writing, and I was insistent that I would not, I asked for an optional retirement so that we could part ways. Surprisingly, I was granted immediate approval for something I had been asking about for three years.

A year after my retirement, the Titas issue that I had written about exploded in the face of that university. I could have been vindictive and added fuel to the public’s rage, but I remained silent and watched as the expert leadership managed the issue through the “damage control” action of isolating a single culprit rather than an entire faculty.

The moral of the story is that there was, and still is, academic freedom. The price is that you will not be promoted to leadership positions, and you will not be in the senate or any important university committee. For me, that was a small price to pay. The vice-chancellors of public universities could appoint Lim Kit Siang to a professorship of political science, if they wanted to. They would probably get a letter of thanks from the higher education ministry. These vice-chancellors would then become ordinary professors, teaching and supervising their students and continuing with their research.

Some pensioner professors who practise “academic freedom” may find their post-pension contracts terminated. To me, if one is an excellent academic, contracts and not becoming vice-chancellor are mere peanuts as one can always find appointments elsewhere.

What exists in our public university are professors with no vision for social development, who are fully dependent on university administration, and who love titles and travelling from their research grants. Public universities have always had “academic freedom”, just lousy professors and vice-chancellors who major in academic bodekisme. Neither of these so-called academics care one whit how our society develops as long as their titles, bank accounts and racial egos are safe and sound.

When I left the public university, I left as a disgraced academic in the eyes of the administration, but I was awarded a full pension, and I was thankful for that. That I left the university silently and without fanfare after 27 years of a successful career was a small price to pay. Now, after so many articles criticising Malay-Muslim institutions and academia, I have hardly any Malay friends left. Another small price to pay. I once joked that when I die, there will not be enough Malay Muslims to fill even one row for my jenazah prayer!

Now, I wish to briefly explain my position on the second fallacy that an academic should be allowed to say and write anything under the sun. Not so fast. There are three aspects that a good and concerned academic must take into consideration.

First, the academic must frame the criticism of policies or socio-religious norms in society within a certain theoretical or academic construct. Tajuddin Abdul Rahman can say anything about Malay history or Ketuanan Melayu, but an academic must frame his or her statement within the clear confines of an academic construct. I can say that the Taj Mahal is the worst example of Islamic infrastructure in history as long as I explain my academic framework of Prophet Muhammad’s sunnah and the functionalist theory of Frank Llyod Wright or Louis Henry Sullivan.

Secondly, the academic must take into consideration the cultural and religious sensitivities of the time. This does not mean that he or she should not write or speak. However, the writing must be framed in a clear manner, with words and sentences phrased within the confines of academic decorum.

When confronted with the issue of non-Muslim flood victims taking shelter in a surau in Penang, I would cite the Prophet Muhammad’s meeting of 60 Najran Christians in his mosque as well as the valour of the devout Christian King Najashi in protecting Muslim refugees in the early days of Islam. An academic must also know how to play to the gallery in making potentially “devastating truths”, especially to the know-all attitudes of our Islamic clerics.

Thirdly, an academic funded by public money must ensure the relevance of the research and inquiry and that it will result in returns on the investment of a democratic society. Millions of ringgit have gone into so-called exotic scientific research that sees no light of day in resolving basic and fundamental issues of health, prosperity and national harmony.

Finally, I wish to add my opinion on the so-called political interference of the education ministry in public universities. What Malaysians do not know is that changing public universities into institutions of enlightened academia which will lead our nation to great awareness and critical thinking is… 20 years away! The rot is not just in leadership or professorial appointments. There is complete indifference to social development.

How many Tajuddins, Maszlees, Azmi Sharoms, Aziz Baris and Terence Gomezs are there at Malaysian public universities? Within the 1,000-strong professorial community at public universities, I count no more than 20.

Changing public universities will require nothing short of a total cultural revolution, not just an exercise in academic appointments.

I have read the blueprint of higher education in Malaysia produced by the previous administration. It is a blueprint to produce efficient slaves to many outmoded industrial practices. So there had better be political interference by the Pakatan Harapan government for the next two years at least to instil an academic culture and management attitude to initiate change. Changing a university and society is not like downloading an app. It takes longer and requires much will and patience.

In conclusion, the citizens of the new Malaysia must understand that academic freedom has always been there amid the threat of the Akta Universiti and an incompetent and unprofessional academic leadership. It has always been about the lack of a real and effective academic culture of visionary thought, open discourse and critical observations of society.

I think the education ministry under Maszlee should concentrate on the young academics and expose them to the real idea of academic culture through forums organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front or the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation. The forums at public universities are mostly pointless and useless.

One last piece of advice to the minister: don’t waste your time on veteran academics. Put them to pasture as soon as their term expires.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.