The meaning of academic freedom and responsibility

The Malaysian Academic Movement (Gerak) is deeply concerned over the recent public comments made by the media and communications adviser to the Prime Minister, A Kadir Jasin.

Kadir, apparently, was upset with the writings and revelations of a lone, rather junior, academic from UKM, Abdul Muein Abadi.

Muein, who is currently working on his PhD in Leiden, Holland, incurred Kadir’s wrath by writing an article asserting that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government had sold RM20 billion in assets since winning GE14.

The short article was published in Umno Online, Umno’s official news portal.

It is a rather shaky article that has 40 points, accompanied by links and very little discussion or analysis. It’s the kind of sensationalist, pseudo-academic piece that throws a few reports together without context or explanation.

Based on this flimsy piece, Kadir started hurling accusations of a conspiracy by the oft-mentioned, but seldom analysed, “deep state”.

In his diatribe, Kadir lumped Muein together with the UKM vice-chancellor and the chair of UKM’s board of directors as possible deep state conspirators.

He then asserted that Education Minister Maszlee Malik was being taken for a ride by these evildoers.

Yes, this outburst was based on an article that was less than 1,500 words long.

Kadir, evidently, is no academic. Otherwise he would have easily differentiated between a well-discussed academic analysis and, really, a first-year undergraduate piece like Muein’s.

But Gerak’s more serious contention is that, even if it had been a thorough, well-researched and analysed paper criticising the PH government, so what?

Academic freedom and responsibility means seeking truths and verifying them. Often, the truth is not necessarily our truth and will hurt. But differences of opinion and dissent are part and parcel of the academia, of knowledge acquisition and generation.

If the work is faulty and clearly biased, it is our task – and, indeed, even Kadir’s – to criticise the work, reveal its limitations and failings, and come up with a counter.

This was what happened earlier this year when the substandard work on the Statute of Rome, by the four now-disgraced academics from UIA, UiTM and Usim, was systematically and comprehensively critiqued and dismissed by real experts.

That these four did not defend their stand at all speaks volumes of their shame and possible loss of face and credibility.

None of us asked for them to be disciplined or even sacked. No one asked the education ministry and minister to interfere and punish them.

For Gerak, it must be the same with Muein and his article. Criticise his work if we must, question his value as a scholar, perhaps.

But let us not become so paranoid as to believe, without a shred of evidence, that there is this big conspiracy.

Kadir may be the prime minister’s media and communications adviser. But as far as academia is concerned, he must not be our censor.

What Kadir is doing IS political interference. What he is implying that the education minister must do is ALSO political interference.

This is not – and must not be – the way of the New Malaysia.

Gerak consistently rejects political interference in the academia. Such interference is one of the major reasons why Malaysian academia is in the sad state it is in.

Academic reform, however slow, is taking place. But it won’t go very far if we allow these kinds of actions – by people who should know better – to continue.

The Malaysian Academic Movement (Gerak) is an academic organisation concerned about academic integrity and accountability.

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