Heralding the birth of the New ‘Old Malaysia’

The refusal to fully repeal the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) signals the birth of what can be termed “the New ‘Old’ Malaysia”.

I have been a strong supporter of the Reformasi movement for 20 years. This cost me many opportunities in my academic career, but I soldiered on as I viewed it my religious and national duty as a citizen of the country. I never thought I would see the day when the Barisan Nasional (BN) order was thrown out and replaced by a brand new hope in the form of Pakatan Harapan (PH). This, we happily call “the New Malaysia”.

After seven months, many of PH’s manifesto promises remain unfulfilled, but I urged people to be patient and to give more time for the teething of the new Cabinet led by our veteran prime minister. I myself was most disturbed that the promise on PTPTN was not fulfilled. Suddenly, the people were told stories of crooked bridges and a third national car. Doubts began to surface on whether the spirit of the Old Malaysia was creeping into the veins of the new government.

The whispers grew louder with the talk of mass defections from Umno into PPBM, and I began to worry about the fate of the nation. My friends in the civil society agreed that something was amiss with our hope for a better future. The sudden announcement that the UUCA would be “tweaked” was, for me, the last straw.

Why did Education Minister Maszlee Malik suddenly announce this “tweaking” of the UUCA business? For as long as I have known him, Maszlee has hated the UUCA as much as I do. It ushered in a culture of academia for academia’s sake, at the expense of the people’s hard-earned tax money. Maszlee felt the brunt of this law in terms of threats of administrative action. When I began writing, I, too, felt this threat for 15 years.

I remember Maszlee’s first speech at Sunway University a week after being elected as an MP. He said, “I hope that the speaker will allow me the pleasure of being the MP to propose the motion that the UUCA be repealed.” Thunderous applause ensued, including from me. I was sitting right in front, within a short distance of Maszlee.

When he was appointed a minister, I was overjoyed to finally have an academic who knows a thing or two about what real university life should be. I received updates of his activities and progress through WhatsApp messages, including on the progress of the repeal of the UUCA.

The question on my mind after all this is: What made Maszlee announce that this ludicrous act would be tweaked, not repealed? Is the spirit of the Old Malaysia still lingering in the Cabinet meeting room? Or, worse, have the newly minted ministers succumbed to honours, titles, hand-kissing and limousine rides, and are we on the way back to the Old Malaysia?

Not many may consider the importance of repealing the UUCA. Many may think that as long as their children graduate on time and the lecturers teach in classes like they’re supposed to, it is no big deal. But everything that has agitated and caused stress to the citizenry is directly related to the muting of the university as a platform of discourse.

The problem with Malaysians is that we have the WhatsApp syndrome. We don’t read books, articles or serious pieces. We only consume short, snappy WhatsApp messages, and we think this is all there is in the real world.

A year before the 14th general election, I was asked by a reporter after a talk I had delivered on the future of Malaysia after the election. I said Malaysia’s future does not lie with whichever party wins the election, but with three critical factors: whether the Malays change their mindset about the interpretation of Islam, whether academics realise their role in nation building, and whether university students understand the true values of democracy and fight for their fundamental liberties.

The Malays must understand that Islam can be interpreted by anyone, not just a handful of ulamak. In a modern education construct, the interpretation of a traditional source is no more than an interpretation, not the sacred word of God. The Quran can be interpreted by a non-Muslim scholar as well as a professional like a doctor, lawyer or architect. Do the ulamak know about science, technology and economic policies?

In order to grow, interpretation must come from all sources and experts so we can choose and reflect. Calling every interpretation except that of the so-called authorities or state religious officials sedition is a sure formula for the regression of society’s intellectual development. This in turn will cause strain on economic, scientific and social progress. The recent infant deaths from diphtheria are testament to this regression in society due to narrow-minded religious speakers.

Secondly, academics who have spent time studying the various branches of knowledge must share and contribute to the growing discourse in society. In a democracy, it is the ordinary citizen, likely uneducated in nuclear physics or architecture or quantum mechanics, who will be elected as an MP, minister or even prime minister. Look at all the simplistic discourse on Islamic issues in society. “Cina kotor”, Malay Bibles, the tudung issue, “gelas haram” and “makan dalam tandas during Ramadan” are all “kampung” issues. What is the point of spending billions upon billions of ringgit on research and salaries for academics in international Islamic universities when we have only one or two who fight hard to explain Islam?

Look at the discussions in Parliament and from the MPs. By now, we should expect discourse on the fourth Industrial Revolution, on sustainable development goals to save the planet, but what do we get? Bung Moktar shouting abusive language and Noh Omar spouting poorly constructed pantuns.

Who is supposed to build the new narrative, away from racial and religious issues and into developmental issues that will help us become a first world nation?

It should be the academics who have the knowledge albeit minus the political and executive power. They have the power to control the discourse and narratives. But they sit writing paper after paper, getting fat from promotions and titles. Itu saja.

One reason for this slumber in the academia is the fear of the UUCA. Academics can be charged any time for making statements to the media and on public platforms. The act only allows some critical views, and only within the four walls of classrooms and seminar halls. Even then, we hear of Special Branch members copying down “critical views” that surface in promotion committees and important appointments. The UUCA must go.

Thirdly, students must make themselves understand their democratic liberties and what is due to them from the wealth of the country by reading and attending intellectual forums outside the universities. All the nonsense about protecting Malay rights has not helped Malay students struggling to find jobs, or Malays in urban areas who scrub floors for a living. In the past, Malay rights helped Malay politicians get rich to the point that their great-grandchildren don’t have to lift a finger to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.

This country belongs to all Malaysian students, as well as those with legal identity cards. Only the university students who inherit the mantle of leadership in the country’s political, social, religious and economic institutions may determine the fate of the nation. If they cannot participate in political activities on campus, what kind of leadership can we expect?

If PH fails or refuses to fulfil its manifesto pledge to repeal all these acts that muzzle creative and critical discourse, then I will be forced to conclude that the spirit of the Old Malaysia still lingers in the Cabinet room. Rumours of more Old Malaysia elements jumping ship and possibly filling up the Cabinet room add to the fear that Malaysians might be taken for a ride.

If there are any inspiring politicians who wish to talk about a new party, or about rejuvenating old ones into a new coalition that would repeal these laws, now would be a good time to start moving. After seven months in power, the days of PH in the “New ‘Old Malaysia'” are numbered. If the ghost of the Old Malaysia is not quickly and decisively exorcised, civil society must start moving and reposition itself once more to call on Malaysians to march in a sea of yellow shirts to save our country from the rot of the Old Malaysia in the new government.

We did it once on May 9, 2018, and we can do it again come May 2022.

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