Former finance minister Daim Zainuddin surprised us all with his refreshing and candid speech during the “Seminar Naratif Melayu” at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) on March 19.
UTM has been overly obsessed with the Malay and Islamic narratives for decades, with few tangible results. For an academic institution claiming to be among the top 1,000 universities in the world, we are not seeing any noteworthy publications or ideas arising from these endless discussions. So, what has UTM learnt from these narratives over the past few decades? Is it to hold more such seminars to mask the emptiness of the previous ones?
Are these seminars (which cost money) hosted to the exclusion of more important scientific seminars? This is perhaps one rationale behind Daim’s honest remarks on Tuesday night.
UTM’s race-religion narratives have continued even while it largely excludes non-Malays from faculty positions within the university. I recall an old joke: “It is easier for an Arab” to join as a faculty member or student than a non-Bumiputera Malaysian. One only needs to look at the demographic ratio among faculty and administrative staff as well as students at UTM to understand what I am talking about.
For an institution that was supposedly formed to build a new generation of Bumiputera engineers, scientists and academics, I don’t recall meeting any staff member hailing from Sabah and Sarawak either during my student years.
Limited and shallow narratives affect the Malay intelligentsia as well. Outspoken lecturers (when you can find one) who baulk at this trend are often given suffocating administrative tasks that border on childish pettiness. Our universities are legendary for the art of rejecting merit over some petty technicality.
Others try to play it safe. As Tajuddin Rasdi noted in his excellent article “Daim’s appraisal of our academics”: “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.”
This is certainly not a problem with UTM alone. Less meritorious academics throughout our public universities often find it convenient to mask their mediocrity behind the facade of the Malay-Muslim narrative.
At the end of the day, we ask our public universities to show what they have produced after the tens of billions collectively pumped into their budgets over the past few decades. Reveal the internationally recognised textbooks, patents, discoveries and inventions from your institutions. But instead of these important milestones, I am sure there are tonnes of complaints filed over the years with regards to the selective narrative-led discriminatory policies at our public universities!
CL Toh is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.