A castrated academe perpetuates fads

We are all familiar with fads. A fad is an intense and widely-shared enthusiasm for something. It is often short-lived.

The dictionary lists several synonyms for fad. Vogue, trend, obsession and fascination are a few.

Contentious issues in current Malaysian politics tend to fit into the fad category. Social, print and visual media promote political fads. It is the nature of their business, right or wrong. Society laps it up, most of the time treating these as entertainment.

The “Bung Mokhtar Era” was entertaining. So was the “Nik Abduh Nik Aziz Era”. We will always be entertained by the latter in particular, because the “divinely-sanctioned art of lying” seemed en vogue.

Political fads in Malaysia are worrying, more than entertaining. Emotions that are ruffled are often superficial and very short lived. The messages that fads are supposed to relay are buried. Invariably, that hidden purpose is dismissed and eventually forgotten.

The latest controversy surrounding the Rome Statute is in danger of becoming another fad. In other parts of the world, fads produce long term effects on society.

The messages that many fads hide reveal themselves, eventually. Conversely, I predict that the lessons of the Rome Statute controversy will be left unlearnt, rendering it as another fad. Just like ICERD. Let me explain.

Philosophy professor Allan Bloom wrote a classic entitled “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students”. It signalled a change in the American mental climate of the 1980s.

Bloom wrote that in the 1960s, when he talked to his students about books, “there was no printed word to which they looked for counsel, inspiration or joy”.

He went on to say that the universities failed to provide a unified education, due to American discriminatory laws of the time.

Blooms’ ideas were promoted as a fad. This was obvious from media reports which used phrases such as “pop polemic” and “tendentious treatise” to critique Bloom.

During the late 1970s and onwards, American universities and academics were prime movers of social change. They were true intellectual bastions where ideas translated into practical policies that affected the lives of citizens.

A barrage of scholarly and literary writings on the subject of education and its decline persisted decades later, to current times. American politicians, civil society groups, parents, teachers, students and rural folk want to know more about the state of their education system.

Various publications ranging from academic books and articles, to investigative media pieces, and popular teen magazines engage in the discourse.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, regularly features challenging articles which critique western education and propose alternatives.

Wired Magazine – a popular science and technology-oriented magazine that appeals to the 20-40 age cohort, also features similar articles, such as one in 2014, entitled “Are Americans getting dumber?”

In Malaysia, the socio-transformative implications of fads are next to zero. For example, subjects of racial and religious significance make media headlines and command wide air coverage. It lasts for two weeks, maybe three. Commenting on these developments promises instant, armchair fame.

This is especially so for social media users on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Youtube and Instagram. Fads are grounded in fact, which our media reports efficiently (but not always accurately). Of course fake news exists, but Malaysians are learning quickly how to discern the truth.

The only problem is that these news items emerge as fads, but there is no follow-up to reveal the underlying implication. The hidden messages that fads deliver are quickly forgotten or even intellectually obscured. This is convincing evidence that the “freedom of expression” and “academic freedom” mantras in Malaysia are flippant red herrings.

Malaysian universities and educators have failed. The recent emotionalism surrounding Malaysia’s accession to the Rome Statute demonstrates this failure. It seems to be just another fad in the making.

About a week ago, a group of students announced that a public forum would be held on April 27, organised by G25 and other civil society groups. Due to confusion over Malaysia’s accession to the Rome Statute, a decision was made recently, to withdraw. The genesis of the confusion is a basic lack of understanding of the issue traversing all levels in Malaysian society.

It is apparent now that the majority of ordinary citizens, politicians, NGOs, academics and even the royalty are ignorant of what the Rome Statue represents.

Several parties have contributed to the confusion, while others have tried to clarify it. Controversy has already set in and many are upset. Many feel insulted and many are called “biadab”.

The Pakatan Harapan government is facing another major blow, being accused of incompetence because it was forced to retract from its original decision. Others have accused supporters of the Rome Statute as being “gelojoh”, too greedy and gullible in accepting anything foreign to Malay culture and our constitution.

The problem lies in the fact that before our foreign minister announced Malaysia’s accession to the Statute last month, there were no pre-emptive measures taken to educate the public.

A representative and democratic government such as ours should prioritise such efforts. Use the media. Encourage our universities. Create a climate of debate and discussion, about the pros and cons. This was not done.

Since the controversy, there has hardly been any comments or discussions about it on campus, among students and lecturers. Our universities seem oblivious.

Of all people who should strive to clear this confusion, I expect academics to play a key role. The fact that four academics are partly responsible for the controversy is one matter.

Another more serious matter is that academics throughout Malaysia have so far failed to engage in the process of alleviating the controversy. To date, only one forum has been held at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), on April 19. Another forum was to be held on April 30 at Universiti Technologi Mara (UiTM) but has since been cancelled. Among the speakers at this latest forum were at least two of the four academics who presented their executive summary to the Council of Rulers.

Malaysians are asking why it was cancelled. Again, no reasons given, just a blanket decision, leaving the public high and dry.

This is very irresponsible of academia and demonstrates intellectual cowardice. It is also a slap in the face of academic freedom.

Why are we not exercising our academic freedom to defend our research and argue our case publicly? If one is confident of the ethics of our research, we should not fear public scrutiny.

The Rome Statute fiasco is proof that Malaysian academia and universities continue to fail in their nurturing role as educators. They are intellectually castrated.

If professors are confident of their research methodology and analyses, they should welcome feedback. Dissenting opinions should excite them. This method of engagement would make the public feel that they are part of the overall decision making process.

After all, this is the foundation of the democratic process, which PH subscribes to.

PH’s gradual drop in popularity over the few months is partly due to the public feeling ignored on several national and foreign policy fronts. There are high demands among the public that the four academics, including the attorney-general, come forward and explain themselves.
There are two specific issues of concern. The first is, how is the Rome Statute an affront to the legitimate position of the Malay rulers? The second is, how is it an insult to Malay rights and the position of Malays in the constitution?

The public also needs to be educated in the general provisions of the Rome Statute, which is a treaty established by the International Criminal Court.

Unless PH truly understands the meaning of “knowledge is power”, we will keep basking in a sea of slogans and superficial rhetoric.

We will continue to be deluded into thinking that fads act as engines of social change. In reality fads do not. They only make a mockery of democracy.

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