My fellow FMT columnist, Dr S Munirah Alatas wrote a few days ago about the “value” of individuals with PhDs in Malaysia. This is an issue that has gained quite a bit of traction within public circles recently with news of a PhD-holder Member of Parliament making allegations about another fellow MP.
Munirah makes very relevant points on the issue of PhD-holders in Malaysia, something which is becoming a global issue as well today.
In many well-documented instances, PhD-holders use the weight and gravitas of their academic qualifications to push forth their opinions and narratives, sometimes without any scientific basis or logical rationale whatsoever.
I totally agree with her thoughts on this matter, and use this opportunity to highlight another farce which is becoming predominant in this country: the rise of individuals with honorary doctorates.
Historically, honorary degrees including bachelors’ degrees and doctorates are degrees awarded by an academic institution where all usual academic requirements including attending classes and passing examinations are waived. These are usually awarded as an honour to distinguished individuals for their contributions to society, usually in a specific field.
The practice of awarding honorary degrees goes back to the Middle Ages, with Oxford and other universities awarding such degrees to known personages. In 1781, for example, Yale awarded an honorary degree to George Washington, first president of the United States of America.
Most established universities across the globe also continue this practice until today; with different institutions having different types of practices including some awarding specific types of honorary doctorates such as a HonD (Honorary Doctorate) or DUniv (Doctor of the University) to distinguish between honorary degrees and PhDs awarded to those who have fulfilled academic requirements.
One thing remains common though: the practice of awarding honorary doctoral degrees are specifically intended for eminent individuals who have contributed substantially to society as a whole; and customarily, these recipients do not use the formal title of “Doctor” as a prefix, while they can add the post-nominal letters after their names including the letters h.c or Latin for honoris causa (for the sake of honour).
Which brings us to the matter of honorary doctorates in Malaysia and why I am kicking up such a fuss.
The issue of individuals masquerading as PhD-holders makes its rounds from time to time, as different individuals are unmasked in the public eye or called out for their “fake” credentials.
As early as 2016, then minister of higher education Idris Jusoh mentioned that the ministry would establish a registry for all PhD holders in the country to combat the issue of the production and usage of fraudulent academic titles by individuals and organisations.
This register may already be in existence, but I could not find it online and efforts really should be made to increase the awareness of the public around the existence of such a database, if it is already up and running, in order to make it quite transparent on who is really a PhD-holder or not.
However, the issue of honorary doctorates is quite an interesting one altogether. This is now a revenue-generator, with individuals and businesses advertising how they can “award” such honorary doctorates – which are being snapped up by numerous individuals trying hard to add “legitimacy” to themselves.
A quick search online will reveal these offers, with individuals once having signed up (and making payment) flying to exotic countries for a graduation ceremony in which they are awarded the honorary doctorate by obtuse academic institutions. Various ads also abound on different universities “offering” honorary doctorates for “affordable” prices.
What do people do with such honorary doctorates?
For one, they use it to peddle products and services, often for the sake of self-enrichment. Look carefully at some of the abundant self-motivational and self-help speakers; or even many of the experts peddling wellness, nutritional and other such new age products. Their sales pitch is legitimised by the title Dr added to their names, something which resonates with Malaysians as being trustworthy and legitimate as I have previously written about.
Recently I personally ran into an individual who persistently requested me to refer to him as Dr during the entire course of our interaction. Unfortunately, the quality of the conversation we had really created doubts in my mind as to his academic prowess, to put it mildly.
After the meeting, I googled his credentials to find his academic credentials consisted of an honorary doctorate awarded from a dubious academic institution that I could not even find registered in the World Higher Education Database. And yes, he was trying to peddle a cancer “cure” which cost thousands of ringgit.
With legitimate concerns even being raised on the standards of genuinely awarded PhDs, the use and abuse of these honorary doctorates by individuals is another worrying threat, especially to the public unaware of their hidden agendas. I put forward that this issue is one of the contributing factors to the erosion of public trust in science and academia.
Question is, are we ready to do something to address these new age academic “cons”?
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.