A council of professors for the people and nation

The Pakatan Harapan government has indicated that it will restructure the “Barisan Nasional-friendly” Council of Professors into something that will benefit the nation and act as a voice of conscience for the people.

I am most supportive of this move, not because I am a professor, but because this will give academics a chance to climb down from their pedestals and get “down and dirty” with civil society, NGOs and village people – in other words, playing realpolitik.

In a democracy, I believe change in the country must be brought about by those who have the ideas, financial ability, strengths and time. Whether you are a professor or you sell pisang goreng, you can contribute meaningfully within your own scope.

In Islam, this is known as “ibadat”. Although ibadat is a loose translation of “worship”, Abul ala Maududi explains that it is doing good and forbidding bad things in society, to help the community in general which is considered “worship of a different kind, loved by Allah”.

In today’s article, I wish to make some suggestions on how the new Council of Professors could take form.

First of all, I hope that the name “Council of Professors” will be changed to “Council of Academics for Nation Building”. There are three reasons why I want to drop the term “professor” from the name. Firstly, I do not wish the term to be a social status of sorts like the word “ulama”. Dr Mahathir Mohamad once quipped that Persatuan Ulama is a strange name because it is like saying you are in a group of “very, very clever people” – a case of filling in your own bakul! I agree with Mahathir’s take on the situation regarding our self-proclaimed religious clerics and state officials.

Secondly, I wish to start anew by washing off the social title of “Professor Kangkung”. Although I agree that there are more of these sort than there are good ones, it will not help the new cause to have such a stigma around.

Thirdly, I wish to democratise the idea of “academics” so that it does not include only a group of people with “professor” titles in front of their names. The idea that only professors can be in the council is like having an undemocratic idea of being in a nation-building committee due to social status, like the Council of Tan Sris or the House of Bangsawan or Aristocrats and so forth. A “council of professors” is no different from the idea of a Persatuan Ulama.

Although the new council will likely comprise professors from both public and private universities, it should also be possible to include the names of some academics who are not professors but who have shown great ideas and the ability to be part of this group.

As for the phrase “nation building”, it is to remind the council members of their sacred duty to educate the masses in order to effect change in the country. Academics are not there to earn exorbitant allowances and curry favour, but to implement their theories and ideas in economics, education, science and technology to help rebuild this tattered nation.

The new council should be a platform for professors to show young academics that the ultimate goal of knowledge is not to gain material enrichment in terms of positions and the like, but as a form of “ibadat”, to change society into an enlightened citizenry to bring about change for our mutual benefit.

I propose that the structure of the council’s organisation be as follows: there should be a chairman and a deputy, plus 12 central committee members comprising the professors. I also propose that the 12 central committee members act as the heads of 12 “shadow Cabinets” with each Cabinet comprising 10 professors from public and private institutions with an addition of not more than five members from civil society and NGOs.

The 12 shadow Cabinets will mirror the present classification of ministries, but combined in a more meaningful way. In a country of 30 million people, it is not sustainable to have more than 20 ministries. By having the members of each Cabinet or ministry comprise both academics and citizenry, a new era of academia for nation building can be ushered in.

The Council of Academics for Nation Building will lead the way to formulate a new culture of research, writing, projects and publications, directly for nation building. Each shadow Cabinet must deliberate on long-term strategic planning for the country while offering criticism and suggestions concerning the present policies and actions of real ministries. Each shadow Cabinet should be awarded RM100,000 to run forums, talks and meetings with societies as well as Cabinet members and civil servants. The budget for a modest allowance or gratis for the members of the council and committees should be at the education ministry’s discretion.

I would also like to propose that the Council of Academics for Nation Building have two different committees: the committee for selection of vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellors for public universities, and a committee for academic promotion. The first should comprise of eight professors, two education ministry officers and five civil society members or NGO representatives. The education minister should no longer have sole jurisdiction to appoint vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors at public universities. The ministry only has jurisdiction over the leadership of public colleges.

The committee for academic promotion meanwhile should comprise five professors from the social sciences, three from the arts and six from engineering and the sciences. It should also include three members of civil society and NGOs. The committee should be tasked with deliberating on the KPI of academics in different fields. At the moment, the KPI is too lopsided towards engineering and the sciences. That is why liberal arts and social sciences are dying and command little respect in Malaysia these days.

The promotion of associate professors should be conducted by the universities themselves, with one member from this committee. The promotion of professors must be considered by three members of this committee alongside other members of the university.

The Council of Academics for Nation Building should be housed at the now-defunct higher education ministry. The department of higher education should act as secretariat for its activities along with those of its shadow Cabinets and the two committees.

With these changes, I hope our dream of an academia that is focused on nation building will effectively change the narrative of discourse and issues in the media, and get through to the real crux of the matter.

The council must be “controversial” and call a spade a spade. It must articulate suggestions and criticism of the country’s leadership without fear or favour, and in a professional and courteous manner. Silence is not an option. “Bodekism” should never be made a culture. And the words “kangkung” or “academic prostitution” should be eliminated from the new vocabulary of the academia for the people’s conscience.

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