Democratic resistance in our education system

Voters on the eve of GE14 desperately wanted a transformation. Change finally arrived.

Barisan Nasional (BN) was overthrown. Pakatan Harapan (PH) was given the mandate to re-align Malaysian politics. Society was convinced: to continue supporting an elite-dominated corrupt leadership would be anathema for the future of a multiracial Malaysia.

However, despite these successes and the lofty principles behind them, stark resistance persists. The roots of this resistance stem ironically from the agents of change itself.

Fifteenth-century political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli wrote “there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things”.

Reform in economic and political systems has always been at the centre of democracies. Malaysians exercised this democratic right to change how government serves us.

The road towards this socio-economic change has been rocky. But this is not unusual. Machiavelli attributes this to human nature.

One of Machiavelli’s well-known works is “The Prince”. It is a how-to manual for political leadership. He was against the hereditary, religious regime of the Medicis of Florence (present-day Italy). His message was straightforward: if you are to govern, you better be effective.

Machiavelli finally landed himself a job as second chancellor, responsible for the city of Florence’s correspondence and domestic reports, and diplomatic missions. He never made it to the rank of ambassador (he was just an envoy), but was extremely ambitious.

How is Machiavelli relevant to post-GE14 Malaysia?

Machiavellian, as we know, is a byword for deceit, despotism and political manipulation. My piece today, though, is not about how “machiavellian” our current political process is, or how manipulative our politics and politicians continue to be. Rather, it focuses on segments of civil society who brought about a transformation in the last elections, yet persist in resisting change.

Machiavelli’s “effective governance” can only be achieved with the conscious gumption of a concerned civil society. Instead, what we are seeing within the educational intelligentsia is a form of passive resistance. The guilty are our academics who grease its machinery.

Last week I received many responses for a piece I had written on the failings of Malaysian academics. Most were apologetic. Readers neither agreed nor disagreed with my statement that our academics had failed in their role as agents of social and political change.

Instead, they justified why academics have “kept their mouths shut”. They blamed it on a lack academic freedom. This is still used as an excuse.

The persistent thinking is that academics cannot be completely unbiased in expressing their views because universities are not autonomous. This argument is not logical, though. The fact that they have responded to a published article written by a fellow academic (me) is proof that academics are still able to express their views openly.

Let us be painfully honest here. Universities in Malaysia have a large degree of autonomy, more so after GE14. Still, so few lecturers have managed to crawl out of the woodwork, and expose themselves as intellectuals and agents of social change.

The media articles, blogs and video recordings that we continue to be exposed to are by veteran critics.

A year has gone by. The educators who were critiquing noisily during the BN era seem to have toned down the noise, and remain behind the scenes. Fellow academics know this because we see and hear it on an everyday basis, within the confines of the universities.

How can this be useful, though, if their ideas are not shared openly with the general public? It is probably due to a lack of intellectual honesty. It is not due to the fear of being suppressed and psychologically bullied. It is also not due to the lack of time or resources. After all, they were braver pre-GE14. It is due to a rational choice.

Due to a disgruntled past, academics these days see no reward in penning their thoughts for popular media, for instance. They see no immediate payoff in terms of promotion, financial gains or government appointments and committee positions. Their activism was short-lived because the moral commitment to genuine change was only skin deep.

Maybe they value instant gratification as opposed to a long-term struggle for humanity. Self-censorship exists more because of a lackadaisical attitude. It is not because of the fear of disciplinary action or being sacked by the university.

There are a handful of genuine and concerned professors who have persisted in their activism. You know who you are.

Unfortunately, the majority of them are still committed to intellectual inertia. Despite a plethora of social, political, religious and economic challenges currently facing Malaysian society, our university professors have yet to commit to an orchestrated struggle for change.

A majority may not be guilty of overt machiavellian deceit or manipulation. Instead, they refuse to tailor their critiques constructively. They are guilty of a more serious form of manipulation – deliberate silence to further self-interest.

An annual conference was organised on May 1 entitled “Own Your Future: The World Order in the Age of Liquidity”. The organiser, Al Sharq Youth invited international academics, politicians and media representatives to present their views.

Education Minister Maszlee Malik could not deliver his presentation in person, and instead submitted a video of it. In the beginning of the video, Maszlee argued that it is important to incorporate technology in education, but not at the expense of values. He stressed that students should love knowledge and be joyous and passionate in acquiring it. He claims that an important step in this direction had already been taken by his ministry when it recently abolished examinations for Classes One through Three.

Maszlee’s message seemed more pedagogical. Nevertheless, it touched on the foundation of education: the role of values.

Unfortunately, Maszlee’s delivery did not detail its implications for nation-building and social change. Although he mentioned the importance of inculcating mutual respect among students, our education system at the tertiary level has failed to operationalise this.

To my mind, mutual respect is when professors and lecturers care enough about their socio-political surroundings, and attempt to correct the wrongs. It is a sign of respect when they are cognisant of these problems and make a concerted effort towards solving them.

Research grants and published academic articles are only a fraction of these efforts. It is not enough. It is also disrespectful if they sit back and ride out the storm.

Mutual respect does not mean only acknowledging the dissenting views of students and fellow academics, much less only within the confines of our universities. Mutual respect has to transcend this.

By the time we are qualified lecturers and professors, with a doctorate no less, our responsibility becomes broader and selfless.

Unless, of course, our academics, like Machiavelli, have the pipe dream of landing cushy administrative positions.

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