The sorry state of Malaysian academics

Malaysians are very devoted to preserving public peace. In fact, no society in the world promotes public chaos as a value to uphold.

Our short history after independence betrays one violent incident, that of the May 13 riots. We do not want a repeat of that episode. So, discourse in our society is carefully channelled with that in mind.

However, knowingly or subconsciously, trends in the current political narrative add fuel to potential chaos. In many ways, we are worse off now than we were in the period leading up to the 1969 racial riots. Part of the blame lies on our academics.

As much as our democratic space has opened up since May 9, 2018, we are faced with a new difficulty. We are overwhelmed with an information and analytical overflow.

Malaysians are grateful that more information is available, with less censored. However, a certain strata of society needs to take responsibility for packaging it honestly.

I do not mean that the federal security forces, police, state and federal religious agencies and the Sedition Act have to criminalise versions of the truth. There are no “versions of objective truth”; there is only one objective truth. It is fed by consistent logic and rational analysis.

Packaging truth lies with the more educated members of the public who have the trained skill to disseminate ideas productively. These are people ordinary citizens look up to for guidance. These are our academics.

Herein lies the problem. Ownership of consistent logical analysis has been hijacked by prima donnas among this educated class. They strut in and out of our media, disguising their “logical” writings and video interviews with ideologically-offensive and inaccurate critiques of our socio-political problems.

These so-called public intellectuals and academics engage in their own brand of mental manipulation aimed at projecting their personal agendas.

Academics and intellectuals are looked up to in Malaysia. However, it is time the public wakes up to what they are looking up to.

Malaysians should know what a public intellectual is before we confer such a title to any Tom, Dick or Harry. We must also know when to write off that public intellectual as obsolete. We must isolate the fluff and those dishonest from the dedicated and authentic.

To illustrate this, two critical developments in our recent socio-political development will be highlighted.

A recent article about closing down our 20 public universities is one example. It demonstrates a kind of emotionalism so uncharacteristic of academia. It is ideologically reactionary and aggressive.

Only a small percentage of critical readers will choose to read between the lines. They will see through to the real message behind its call to close 20 public universities.

What is more important is the clever use of self-glorification coupled with humble praise of past scholars, constructed to fool the reader. This cunning use of dialectic may mesmerise a majority of readers. However, it does not fool the true scholar and the discerning intelligent Malaysian citizen.

Post-GE14 Malaysia needs less polemics and rhetoric, and more sincere critiques of socio-political problems.

Readers these days prefer a frank rendition of the sorry state of our education system. We want to know why academics in our public universities have remained silent in critiquing the trajectory of Malaysia Baru.

We do not subscribe to an “all or nothing” philosophy.

In my previous writings, I have mentioned that major social change in many societies, including India, Indonesia and the US, began as student and academic movements.

It is a fact that Malaysian academics have failed in their tasks as agents of social change. They have either forgotten what their role is, or they have chosen to take the phlegmatic path to quick promotions.

They have also preferred cheap recognition over seven-figure research grants, irrespective of whether they promote a deep philosophical transformation or not.

Malaysians are aware of the shortcomings of our universities. I need not belabour the point.

A more serious issue demands attention. This concerns the recent Rome Statute debacle surrounding four academics. Weeks have gone by and they remain silent despite the accusations hurled their way.

An excerpt from the article mentioned above reads: “There is no future for innovative thoughts. There is no future for new permutations of race relations. There is no new and higher constructs of truths.”

Is academia not compelled to be innovative? Is academia not dedicated to devising new analytical permutations? Are academics not obliged to construct and re-construct the truth based on empirical fact and sound analysis?

Academic integrity compels us to analyse our empirical research honestly. It is an insult to logic and an embarrassment to Malaysian academia to churn out papers and executive summaries that are rigged to pander to a hidden agenda.

However, the problem will not be solved if we give up by saying “close down the universities”. We should focus on exposing these half-baked, opportunistic, degreed individuals.

The hardest part in this endeavour is persistence and consistency. Unfortunately, too many of us are into instant gratification, national recognition, media publicity and positions in government entities. We are not prepared for the long haul of inner struggle.

Intellectuals of note throughout history have struggled through marginalised lives, isolated and unrecognised. It is about time Malaysian academics realise that this in itself is the earthly, and other-worldly reward.

The freedom to express ideas is a value held close to all academics. Almost a year after the Pakatan Harapan government came into power, a positive trend in this freedom is obvious.

Yet, due to some kinks in the rational processes of many academics, they are unable to steer the narrative into more constructive debates. They have constructed intelligent critiques, yet the underlying messages are self-serving and useless.

Public intellectuals and academics have a noble role to play. They should remain consistently relevant in their goal to develop a critical society, given the institutions already in place.

There is no room for selfish, egotistical agendas.

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