Date: Tue, 15 Jun 1999 22:26:50 -0500 (CDT)
From: email@example.com (Rich Winkel)
Subject: RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: Academics Speak Out At Their Own Risk
/** ips.english: 502.0 **/
** Topic: RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: Academics Speak Out At Their Own Risk **
** Written 9:03 PM Jun 14, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.
*** 14-Jun-99 ***
Academics Speak Out At Their Own Risk
By Anil Netto, IPS
14 June 1999
PENANG, Malaysia, June 14 (IPS) - It is not easy to be a critical
and outspoken academic in Malaysia, especially at a time when
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is facing the stiffest challenge
to his 18-year grip on power.
For the first time in two decades, political consciousness
stirred campuses across the country, after the shocking ouster of
former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim last September. Not
surprisingly, academics have come under close scrutiny by the
authorities, who are jittery about criticism of any sort.
Shahnon Ahmad, a national literary laureate and creative
writing lecturer at the Science University here, was sharply
criticised by officials after he wrote a scathing satire called
"Shit" to express how he felt about the political situation.
Shahnon's case illustrates the flak that academics here risk
facing if they speak out stridently against the status quo. "The
scope for academic freedom is very narrow," says Wan Abdul Manan,
chairman of the Malaysian Academic Movement (MOVE).
According to Wan Manan, academics enjoyed more freedom before
the introduction of new staff disciplinary rules were made part of
the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) in 1979.
The act was tightened after thousands of university students
demonstrated against poverty and alleged famine in the mid-1970s.
The same act bars academics from holding office in political
parties and making press statements without the permission of the
They are also not allowed to publicly question university
policy or speak on political platforms, unless the issues are
related to their area of expertise.
Apart from the UUCA, academics have to contend with the staff
general orders, the Official Secrets Act, and the Printing Presses
and Publications Act, all of which curtail the scope and freedom
of research in one way or another.
"1979 was a black mark in the history of academic freedom in
the country," says Wan Manan, grimly. Apathy, he says, started
creeping into the campus in the 1980s, at a time when academics
were being churned out by universities.
"Many of these academics were willing to defend the status quo
in the hope of higher positions. In effect they were 'academics
for hire'," he adds.
Over the last 20 years, Wan Manan says, "there's been an
increasing number of violations of academic freedom by the
authorities, not only affecting academic staff but also affecting
students." Even ordinary citizens have more freedom than
academics to voice their opinions, he complains.
A host of academics have landed in trouble in recent times. In
1997, an air pollution expert incurred the wrath of officials
after he warned about the danger of inhaling air pollutants at the
height of the regional smog crisis. That led to a general gag
order forbidding academics from speaking to the press.
A couple of lecturers involved in the Islamic Al Arqam movement
in the early nineties were also hauled up -- at least one was
detained under the Internal Security Act -- when the government
banned the sect for 'deviating' from Islamic teachings in August
More recently, a virologist at a university in Sarawak province
irked officials when she said that the encephalitis outbreak in
Malaysia was not caused by the Japanese Encephalitis virus, which
was attributed to dozens of deaths. Much later, officials
announced the isolation of a new Hendra-like virus.
Leading government critic Dr Chandra Muzaffar lost his job when
his annual contract with the University of Malaya was not renewed
earlier this year. Chandra had earlier condemned the former deputy
premier's sacking and subsequent assault while in police custody.
Sometimes, it is not entirely the fault of officials or the
system if academics are silenced, says Wan Manan. "Academic
staff are also to blame", he observes. "They are more interested
in getting academic administrative positions rather than
struggling for ideals".
Also, the fear of surveillance puts off many academics.
"There's a lot of self-censorship because academics seem to
assume that they are being watched," says social reformer Wong
Soak Koon, an associate professor in literature.
As in the case of all other freedoms in Malaysia, academic
freedom exists on paper. "We might not have an academic autocracy
under which people are sacked everyday," Soak Koon notes. "But
it's an insidious velvet-glove approach. There are subtler forms
All top academic positions, especially the vice-chancellors'
positions, are mostly political appointees who are carefully hand-
picked and screened. Academics who fall in the bad books of the
university management might find themselves overlooked for
promotion or research funding.
Many academics also shy away from speaking out or approaching
top university officials to voice their concerns. "There's still
a residual feudal overlay," says Wong.
With universities being privatised and 'corporatised' to make
them financially more autonomous, Wan Manan fears that increased
top-down decision making will further erode academic freedom.
"At least now, there is still room for intelligent academics
to voice their concerns," he observes. "But with
corporatisation, what counts is the balance sheet, not humanity or
Academic freedom would then be constrained by the university's
'mission statement', a concept that Wan Manan finds superfluous.
"There should be a universal mission as universities have existed
for thousands of years. The university is a social institution."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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