IT was most refreshing when Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik announced that the new government intended to restore the academic freedom of intellectual engagement and expression, which means public universities would no longer restrict political discourse on campus.
Dr Maszlee even suggested the possibility of having political parties on campus.
In short, he wants to unshackle and dismantle the caveats imposed on the intellectual mind that were in force during the previous government.
In fact, the previous government not only shackled intellectual engagement outside the standard research/teaching responsibility but also manipulated some members of the academic community to promote its political agenda.
One such entity was the National Professors’ Council, which should have promoted academic excellence and the welfare of lecturers but had instead become the political arm of the previous government. Along this line, the top management of public universities were chosen according to their political correctness instead of academic excellence and managerial expertise.
This was done to ensure that the universities toed the official line. Those who dared to criticise the government ran the risk of being put on the back burners and might not be considered for promotion. Thus, the academic community was coerced into silence in the face of official corruption and malfeasance.
This prompted Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to lament the reticence of the academic community to the colossal corruption perpetrated by former government leaders.
However, not all members of the academic community were concerned with proper governance and the wellbeing of the community.
Many were ensconced in their comfort zone of academic silos focusing mainly on research and teaching. But those who ventured at critical appraisal of government policies and malfeasance were hauled up and told in no uncertain terms to fall in line and tow the government’s policies, notwithstanding the corrupt practices, malfeasance, warts and all.
Even after the Education Minister’s announcement of academic freedom of expression and association, there are still top management of universities who instruct academics to concentrate on academic work and refrain from criticising government policies even though the appraisals may provoke thoughts that could affect policy changes.
Such university managements are more concerned with their status and position than abiding by the universal dictum that the university pursue knowledge which not only reveals the phenomenology of existence but, more importantly, to challenge accepted traditions and norms in addition to providing new thought perspectives in the exploration of knowledge.
It is high time that the top management of universities revert to the ethos of academia rather than indulge in political sycophancy to please the powers that be. They must have the courage and fortitude to support academics whose thought patterns are outside the box and contradict the status quo.
Our universities can no longer work in silos; they should be the voice of the people by not only providing new ideas and knowledge but also inculcating their charges with a critical, inquisitive and ethical mind that challenges the norms and traditions in the quest for truth.
MOHAMED GHOUSE NASURUDDIN
Centre for Policy Research and International Studies
Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang