Scholars or charlatans?

Malaysian university academics are a very unpopular bunch. Most of the time, they are dismissed as superfluous. They are scorned for their arrogance.

The public heckles them for their pompous views; they claim to be experts. Lecturers are pitied for being too idealistic. They are scorned for indulging in ego trips.

One description is true, though: too many have presented “empirical research” which they masquerade as the truth.

Malaysians want to admire academics. It is natural to turn to them for guidance as we navigate through our socio-political and economic problems. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult, due to the growing negative perception of our higher education quality.

The negative initialisms for “PhD” have become the brunt of culture-specific jokes. Some examples in American English are “Pulsating Heaving Disaster” and “Permanent Head Damage”. In Malay these can be very unforgiving: “Perasaan Hasad Dengki” and “Perasan Hebat Diri”.

While my heart bleeds for the few genuine, struggling and concerned academics, the tragedy is that our universities are teeming with silly charlatans. How and why did this situation arise?

Part of the answer lies in another question. Why do we obtain a PhD and become career academics? Some do it for the apparent “comfort”. We sit for long hours, reading and writing. We are paid to boast about how many books and articles we publish on a yearly basis.

Many relish being idolised by students. The latter think the world of our profundity. Lecturing and being in a position of intellectual superiority is pure, ego-boosting bliss!

It is a human condition to be aware of our intelligence. The Kurdish Muslim philosopher Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (early 20th century) wrote about the self or ego. He said, “The All-Wise Maker gave to man as a trust an ‘I’ which comprises indications… that recognise the truths… so that ‘I’ might be the unit of measurement of Divinity.”

In short, we humans enjoy our egos so much because we feel closer to God!

Academics unashamedly claim the right to flaunt this. It is pure mental masturbation.

Recent political developments have projected Malaysian academia to the forefront. These developments are forcing us to re-evaluate the philosophical goals of higher education.

We have been going in circles regarding discussions about student admission criteria, race quotas, language of instruction, global university rankings, short-term research output and other quantitative factors.

The steady decline in quality graduates is the focus of much discourse, but only with respect to the “market” and economic factors. Much of the discourse has avoided attempts to understand the connection between “education” and “human development”.

Discussions on the decline of our higher education system have been attributed to the failure of our university academics.

The majority of critics highlight their lack of critical thinking, the lack of academic freedom, the suppression of student activities, the interference of politicians and the low standard of English. These are genuine problems to grapple with.

However, I see three other issues that are fundamental contributors to the crisis. These are academic cheating/theft, the role of critical thinking and the politicisation of academia by academics.

Each of these has played a decisive role in the deep philosophical crisis facing Malaysia. It has left us confused about the meaning of morality, entitlement and progress.

Confusion over morality

Complaints against academic integrity have resurfaced. A recent case of slipshod research was attributed to a political science lecturer. His popular piece caught the attention of the upper levels of the Pakatan Harapan administration. The lecturer’s conclusions were circulated on social media. He used online links as sources to support his thesis.

There are many issues here that put to question the lecturer’s academic integrity, ethics and credibility.

First, his findings were probably meant to steer public opinion and to expose the political transgressions of the current government.

Second, instead of publishing a full-length article, complete with substantiated references, credible sources and empirically tested arguments, he circulated a sensational piece on an opposition online news portal.

This cheap attempt at fame is not what academics are trained to do. If we were, a PhD degree would not require three to six years of preparation.

Third, the attacks against his expose were not defended with the rigour which PhD candidates go through when defending their theses. The lecturer backed down to avoid further criticism.

Any academic worth their salt would know what it takes to produce credible writing. He or she would realise that whatever they write should be relevant to society. He or she should also accept that their views could be criticised and dismissed.

It takes careful planning and organisation of ideas, systematic research, critical analyses and courage to present one’s opinions. A key aspect of the PhD journey is to develop the confidence to defend one’s point of view. Without courage, integrity and honesty, this is impossible.

The case above generated standard responses from the university administration. They implored their academic staff to adhere to the university’s academic code of ethics (buku etika).

Academic “delinquents” are liabilities for universities which compete for world university ranking, research grants and foreign student interest. But appealing to academics to follow the buku etika is not sufficient.

Somewhere amid the scramble for rankings, we seem to have forgotten the purpose of our profession. We are trained to mould minds, drawing lessons from different fields in the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

Academics cannot afford to be myopic just because it is easier. A holistic attitude generates academic integrity and gives the profession moral standing.

Top university administrators, including the university senate and board of directors, need to go back to basics: bring back academic culture.

Many academics are disciplined. We teach, supervise, grade, publish, present research papers at conferences and attend talks. However, these trappings of academia do not constitute academic culture.

The urge to discuss, critically debate, and be politically conscious are absent from Malaysian universities. The standard explanation for this is “there is no academic freedom” on campus. I am baffled at such apologetic excuses.

The lack of academic freedom is a secondary reason for a dead academic culture. Academics no longer discuss and engage in critical thinking with their colleagues because of intense competition and jealousy. They are simply disinterested, consumed with the “tidak apa” attitude.

How can we expect our students to develop critical minds, or our politicians to behave with integrity, when academics are such bad examples?

The “tidak apa” attitude is related to the notion of entitlement. Recurring debates on the special privileges of the Malays and meritocracy reflect society’s understanding of “entitlement”.

For example, academic staff promotions should be based on meritocracy. Let us look at publications as an example.

Publications that contribute to the social, economic and spiritual development of our nation should take priority. Where they are published should be irrelevant.

The hierarchy of international academic journals is set by an international system of vetting. That system has been proven to be biased and monopolistic, with the goal being economic and ideological domination.

Paradoxically, we, as a developing nation, are very critical of the current global order. We see it as controlled by imperialist Western powers, including Israel. “West-bashing” discourse in Malaysia always includes Israel and the Jews.

Similarly, I would expect our academics to lead in our stand against the “colonisation” of academia.

It is about time we stopped blindly adhering to this unfair ranking system set by powerful publishing conglomerates. They hide behind their exclusive understanding of academic excellence.

We should set our own standards, based on the merit of our academics, on condition that they publish relevant research that will benefit all levels of our society. Any feeling of entitlement in academia must be grounded in national relevance, not skewed international standards.

Academic culture in our universities is an essential ingredient for professors to thrive. Universities are unique milieus. Campus culture should enhance individuality. It allows for multiple articulations of problems affecting society.

Academics should spend time mulling over problems and finding solutions. In the process, they should have the integrity to own their mistakes and successes.

They should stop blaming university administrations for their lack of integrity.

If more professors engage in honest, critical and relevant scholarship, university administrators will be less bureaucratic. Everyone in society will benefit.

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