Malaysian university professors then and now – there is no comparison

Relishing life after retirement is about putting your working life behind you in contentment. Whether it has been a success to whatever varying degree is no longer relevant. Retirement should be a time to enjoy the remaining years, laden with gratitude and fulfilment. However, that wasn’t the case for me last week, when I was driven to reassess whether my past vocation as a professor was up to the mark.

Much has been written lately about my peers, comparing us with the 2,500 professors currently on Malaysian university campuses today. The debate came on the heels of a comment about the purported poor quality of our current crop of professors made by the larger-than-life Tun Dr Arshad Ayub, a towering personality who has long had my utmost respect and admiration. Malaysia has benefited a great deal from his foresight in training and education since the 1960s.

As one would expect, such a view didn’t go down too well with the present generation of professors. Fair enough. It was a sweeping generalisation. Undoubtedly, there are excellent professors of world-standing among the 2,500. But when some of those current professors pointed out that the criteria and promotional requirements for professorship in the old days were easier than today, I couldn’t help but cringe. Really?

In trying to prove you are better, there is no need to mar the quality of others. It reflects badly on your ability to handle arguments. It isn’t very professorial by any measure, be it from professors of my era or the present generation.

A professor was especially crucial in providing leadership in a learning institution then. There was a wide spectrum of roles a professor was expected to play in the life of students on campuses. They included teaching, doing and supervising research, career counselling, and administration and faculty management. To the community, professors were the voices of evidence-based truths. They were reliable sources of information that could potentially be exploited to benefit the people at large. They often served as the ultimate conscience of society.

Certainly, we must allow that some differences existed in the pioneering and leadership roles of my contemporaries. What universities expected from us then is somewhat different in terms of prioritisation and deliverables. So one ought to be cautious when comparing the quality of professors of yesterday and today.

It shouldn’t be based on today’s stringent criteria, like the number of publications in high impact journals, the ability to attract huge research funds, strings of academic and research awards, university-industry linkages, etc. Give us old folks a break. My contemporaries and I were academics in the formative era of Malaysian tertiary education. Our strategic visions, competence and achievement of educational goals in the early years of university development had different emphases and prioritisation. Our benchmarking was not the same as today’s. And believe me, accomplishing them was not a piece of cake. Financial constraints and a dearth of sophisticated research facilities were some of the challenges then. Yet we thrived.

I don’t give a hoot if my promotion to professorial status is deemed undemanding, easy or a mere hand-out, as suggested by today’s professors. True, it could have been based on nothing as tough as the academic criteria required today. It was nothing to brag about, perhaps. On the contrary, today I’m proudest of having taught many students who have now reached the rank of professor in many universities throughout the country. Many hold important positions and they are prominent and well-respected in their fields of studies.

In my day, I was never obsessed with global university rankings. But I’d constantly strive to give quality lectures to keep my students interested. I wrote and articulated my research findings for any scientific journal that cared to publish my work. My sole purpose for publishing was to share my data with like-minded scientists. I had not a clue about “high-impact" journals.

I spoke passionately on scientific and environmental issues to raise awareness among lay-people and stakeholders. I queried without fear or favour government policies pertaining to education, health, environment, conservation and scientific issues. I definitely didn’t go around repeating the words of politicians and ministers and lending support to policies just announced, as happens now. We didn’t play the pandering or brown-nosing game. We didn’t deliberately schedule conferences/seminars to coincide with a certain VVIP or minister’s birthday so they could be invited to officiate the event and be surprised with a birthday cake during the conference dinner at a five-star hotel.

I guess we professors of old were just proud to be ourselves. We knew who our customers were and always gave them our best service – and our customers were our students on campus, not people in the corridors of power in Putrajaya.


Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia

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