Daim’s appraisal of our academics

Daim Zainuddin recently made two important points in his speech at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in Skudai.

Firstly, he said the Malays are being fed a narrative bordering on the idea that their race and Islam are both under threat, and that more affirmative policies will be needed in the new Pakatan Harapan government in the coming years and decades.

Secondly, and this is the main point of my article, he said Malay academics appear to be doing nothing at all but are letting this narrative play out to the opportunism of certain political parties and selfish NGOs.

I have been writing to the media for 20 years, saying absolutely the same thing, but it has earned me a negative perception from the Malay establishment especially in the public universities and even the previous higher education ministry.

Daim’s statement came as a sweet surprise to me as he was never one of my favourite politicians.

I know him as a savvy businessman who grew up within the Malay patronage system. As the economic and corporate worlds are outside of my understanding, I have shied away from trying to know anything about the man himself.

But a few days ago, I was surprised to find him articulating a historical, religious and political construct of what I consider a “Malaysia-Malay construct” as opposed to what I term a “Melayu-Malaysia” one.

A Malaysia-Malay construct is simply a Malay who understands his or her own heritage and faith within a Malaysian constitutional, multi-religious and multi-ethnic acceptance of co-existence, while a Melayu-Malaysia construct is a Malay who is just a Malay, then, now and forever, living in a land geopolitically defined as “Malaysia”. No compromise, no apologies.

The Melayu-Malaysia expects others to change for the sake of his race and faith, without the need to understand, tolerate or even acknowledge the importance of the existence of others as partners in nation-building.

The academics of this country have become purely self-serving and disinterested in nation-building.

The story of a disinterested academia began in the 1980s.

The Universities and University Colleges Act, or UUCA, was instituted to kill off or control student political activities and also that of the academics.

Under UUCA, no academic can speak or write to the media or the public without getting permission from the authorities. That basically sums it up.

A few academics were charged under the act, one of them the late Fadzil Noor who was the PAS president and an academic at a public university.

The involvement of the academia in nation-building basically died. With this law, the culture of academia turned inwards to a concentration on teaching until the idea of “world class” and being “internationally recognised” in rankings came into being in the late 1990s.

With this new mantra, academics are said to be successful if they publish in “high impact” or Scopus journals and receive million ringgit grants.

It would also sweeten the deal if an MoU were signed with European or American or Western universities deemed to be “world class” and “international”. Whether such ties would produce a culture of research and inquiry was disregarded as long as universities “dapat nama”, and a minister was there to observe the deals being signed. That’s it.

After the turn of the 21st century, public universities went full blast on rankings by journals with overseas publications. Locally published books, encyclopaedias and journals were regarded as third rate.

In the old days, books and media writings commanded a high percentage and weightage but now there is hardly a column to put them in on an evaluation or KPI form.

Once, I had to put my books, articles and 200 encyclopaedia entries in a column marked “other publications”.

I used to read Aliran, whose writers are academics from universities in the north. I found their writings to be fresh, bold and highly academic.

After 10 years, I noticed their designation was still “associate professor” and wondered when these people would be called “professor”.

I soon found out that they had migrated to the National University of Singapore. There is no future in Malaysia for “public intellectuals”.

I was lucky enough to be appointed a full professor before all the crazy journal hype began to take place in universities. I managed to squeeze by with my books, papers and other writings after attending the professor interview twice.

As my writings increasingly touched on society and the nation, my appointments at committees on the national level became fewer and fewer.

I no longer got invitations to public talks from universities, because I was told that I am “controversial” in the corridors of the chancellery.

So the only appointment letters from public universities that came to me were to be an examiner for PhD candidates and evaluator of professorships and associate professorships in architecture.

The coup de grace came after I went on optional retirement, leaving after 27 years of teaching and writing at a public university, exiting the campus alone and uncelebrated.

My application as contract professor to two public universities was rejected on grounds of me being “controversial”.

I have mentioned that the key to our future is the reeducation process of the Malay mind by Malay academics who understand that Islam is strong only if you read and understand, and not sit in front of the TV or the mosque podium listening to an ustaz giving his half-baked ideas of religion and society.

The fate of our country hinges on academics changing the narratives of what is important for Malaysians in the coming decades and centuries, to be in line with the goals of sustainable development outlined by the United Nations.

We won’t go very far listening to Friday sermons condemning progressive thinkers or LGBT that may have caused Allah to turn the hot weather on us.

Forget about STEM education if academics do not speak about it.

We are facing a Malay-Muslim society that has grown up with the Islamic resurgence of the 1980s with most Malays conscious about the afterlife and religious values for their children and society.

The International Islamic University Malaysia as well as Istac and Ikim were supposed to guide the Malays into a new era of modern and democratic understanding of Islam vis-a-vis nation-building and coexistence.

But where were these academics when two muftis encouraged the use of “kafir” on non-Muslim citizens, or when calls for “jihad” against the enemies of Islam came from the national mosque?

Daim’s speech must give pause to all the vice-chancellors of public universities to rethink their KPI for academics.

We need more public intellectuals to reform and rewrite the narratives of the nation, to bring social and religious harmony and sustainable wealth to the country.

We don’t need “high impact” journals to measure our success.

Just ask the man on the street whether he should vaccinate his children or whether the world is flat or defending minority groups would start a tsunami somewhere.

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