Missing – our society-changing books

If academicians don’t inspire the public in language they can grasp, then the country and nation will never undergo positive change.

TODAY, I wish to take to task both public and private universities on the issue of writing and publishing books.

When postgraduate students from many public universities come to my house to ask me questions, they always go back with a list of books to read and the address of the only place where one can find meaningful knowledge of society. The address is that of the famous – perhaps now infamous – Gerakbudaya bookstore in Petaling Jaya. I never send the students to public universities because they do not have any of the “controversial” books written by courageous Malaysian intellectuals who would never be bestowed with Tokoh Akademik Negara or Anugerah Buku Negara awards.

When I first began my career in Johor at a prestigious public university, I promised myself I would write 20 books before I retire. I have thus far published 56 books and next year I will, God willing, celebrate my 60th birthday.

I wanted to write most books in Bahasa Malaysia and only a few in English. My intention was never glory but the desire to contribute to the Malay-speaking community so that my race could be considered critical thinkers and contributors to the world.

I wanted to write about and explain issues not only to architects and architecture graduates but also to the public so that everyone would understand the concepts and philosophies that I learned from the West during my time in Wisconsin in the United States and Scotland. The thoughts of and questions raised by grand masters of architecture like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and the Liebermeister himself, Louis Henry Sullivan. These were the visionaries that changed the landscape of urban planning and architecture and transformed the modern world.

The books I wanted to write in English would be about Islamic architecture, mosques and community development and Malaysian architectural heritage. Books in Bahasa Malaysia on the multicultural heritage of mosques, temples, kongsi houses, colonial buildings, Hindu temples and traditional shophouses are also badly needed to feed the prevailing poverty of thinking about Malaysia’s different cultures.

I consider myself a “traditional” academic and am probably the very last of my kind in this country. There are no more after me. What is a traditional academic? Well, to me, a traditional academic is one who does research to discover new ideas and thinking and, after publishing a certain number of articles in peer reviewed journals, would write books to explain his/her knowledge to the public.

The role of the academic is a sacred one because if he or she does not educate the public in a language they can grasp, then the country and nation will never undergo positive change. Most of the time such ideas and thinking are highly controversial and would “shock” society – and that is considered a badge of honour. The traditional academic, after publishing many books, would tour the nation on lecture circuits, appear on television and radio in forums or talks that would take 30 years of his or her life.

Nowadays, though, 99.99% of academics are of the “modern” type who publish in journals that the public is unlikely to read, attend conferences that hardly any media would report on, and receive millions in grants to produce more papers and vie for citations among their own kind. These academics have no grand ideas about social and political change but desire grand titles, accolades and positions in government.

Universities nowadays worship writing that appears in what are called “high impact” journals at the cost of book writing. There are two important kinds of books that an academic must write.

One is a book that explains the ideas and concepts that he or she has mastered from reading and analysing writings outside of his or her culture and country. This is called knowledge transfer.

The other kind of book is the academic’s assessment of the state of the nation vis-a-vis his or her expert field of knowledge, subsequent criticisms of present policies and presentation of new policies, and proposal of a grand narrative that could lead the country on a path to better itself.

What is sad nowadays is that academics no longer consider these writings as important because they are valued less than articles appearing in “high impact” journals written by their postgraduate students. Million-ringgit research grants are counted greater than any grand ideas offering knowledge that would create a more balanced nation in terms of its social, economic and environmental aspects. Most academics take one small piece of knowledge and write about and research that their entire academic life. There is no philosophical construct based on their knowledge analysing where we were, what we have become and where we should go.

How are we to progress if there are no grand ideas to dream of presented by academics? How are we to develop new thinking if any book deemed controversial is banned by a functionary in a ministry? How can we encourage the continuity of experience and inherent knowledge when we spend billions on research grants and hardly any on writing and publishing books?

Why are we so enamoured of someone else’s classification of “high impact” when we do not know how to treat our own people’s important contributions in highly impactful media writing and book publication that communicate with the masses and book writing with a higher order philosophy that engages multiple issues in a holistic construct?

Why do Malaysian universities anxiously watch the Times University Ranking when none of the hundreds of institutions in this country provides any ideas that work for the common good of all the people of this nation?

I always thought if I lived another 20 years that I would die as an academic in a career I loved and find spiritual, social and intellectual meaning. But I am seriously considering calling it quits in a year or two for I see no more place for a traditional academic who believes in the simple idea that knowledge is about bringing change and happiness to all, and that it is not just something to use to race up a greasy pole with writing that is accessible mostly to an elite few.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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