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Date: Tue, 15 Jun 1999 22:26:50 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: Academics Speak Out At Their Own Risk
Article: 67637
Message-ID: <bulk.19289.19990617121542@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** 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 university vice-chancellor.

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 1994.

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 of discrimination."

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 society."

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."


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