Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Politics of fear should stop

Har Wai Mun | Sep 16, 08 4:04pm

(Available at: http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/89826)

The recent ISA arrests sparked shock, fear and concern in Malaysians but this politics of fear is not alien to us. Malaysians are now constantly being reminded of the May 1969 riots. That black incident in our shared history was linked to three issues, namely Ketuanan Melayu, the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the Islamic state. These issues in themselves shouldn’t pose any problems if they are not politicised and manipulated by unscrupulous politicians.

Acknowledging Malay dominance and Islam as the country’s official religion has never been a problem with Malaysians as together with this, the constitution also guarantees the right of every citizen to freedom.

Indeed, our muhibbah spirit helps to nurture a harmonic, multicultural Malaysian society that is the envy of many nations around the world.

However, ISA takes away our freedom and strikes fear into our society. Communal politics create unnecessary conflicts among ethnic groups, hence creating fear. No one should influence Malaysians to see differences as conflict. We should embrace difference (in ethnic, religion and ideology) in a spirit of tolerance and understanding.

Secondly, the NEP is not the only affirmative policy in the world. There is Black Economy Empowerment in Africa, the “Germany Eastern burden” after Germany’s reunification and the aboriginal empowerment program in Australia.

Why are there no problems in these countries when this issue is brought up for discussion but immediate protests over the NEP after the March General Elections? Was it another tactic by the government to keep the rakyat in line? It seems we can’t have a rational, educated discussion about the issue without the threat of ISA hanging over our heads.

Thirdly, the Islamic state issue is a favourite game of the BN. It enjoys pitting DAP and PKR against PAS. It also tailors its opinions on the matter according to its audience. For example, to a Chinese audience, BN works to strike fear by saying that if PAS takes over, it will set up an Islamic state and their freedom would be threatened. But in a Malay-Muslim setting like the Umno General Assembly, members go all out to play to the Malay gallery.

It is no secret that in the March General Election, Chinese and Indian voters were warned that if they voted for the opposition, their ‘voice in the government’ would be jeopardised. As for the Malays, they were told that if they supported the opposition, their rights could be jeopardised. Such blatant use of racism is sickening but the coalition still believes such tactics are valid. This only goes to show how out of touch the government is with the ordinary rakyat.

Malaysians have matured tremendously over the past four years, especially in political matters. The alternative media like blogs and Internet news sites have provided Malaysians with a refreshing new insight into Malaysian politics. Gone are the days where we depended solely on newspapers for our daily dose of politics. Indeed, mainstream newspapers are now facing the very real threat of becoming irrelevant in today’s new political landscape.

The beauty of Malaysians today is we can all sit down and discuss our issues like the adults we are. There is absolutely no place for the politics of fear in our society. The government should give the people more credit than to scare them with outdated, archaic mechanisms, whose ultimate goal is not to keep peace but to stifle freedom of speech. Hence, the draconian ISA must be abolished! Instead of resorting to this, the government might do better by listening to the rakyat and giving them a fair chance to express themselves without fear.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Academic freedom and the end of academia

Har Wai Mun | Sep 5, 08
(Available at: http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/89169)

Apex University is the latest icon in Malaysia’s academic world, portraying great ambition and seriousness. But haven’t we already heard of ‘Smart Schools’, ‘Vision Schools’ and ‘Sports Schools’ before? All of these portrayed the same ambition and seriousness when they were launched years ago.

However, year by year, normal schools have out-smarted the Smart Schools in SPM and STPM examinations. The Vision School concept was the government’s effort to promote national unity but communal politics from the same government seems to be jeopardising its own efforts. We have yet to see any results from our Sport Schools either. So, will Apex University share the same destiny?

Without doubting Universiti Sains Malaysia’s credibility to win the status of Apex University, the first question is why must only one university be chosen? Why must we put all our eggs in one basket?

Instead, I believe it would have been better if the government outlined key performance indicators for universities where incentives and funding would be based on. This creates healthy competition, thus automatically accelerating progress towards excellence.

Giving special support and attention to only one university might not be fair to the other universities. In addition, the government might face huge embarrassment if the chosen Apex university is out-performed by the non-chosen ones.

Secondly, given the current scenario of limited freedom of speech and over commercialisation of the education sector in Malaysia, how can we achieve excellence in academia?
The lack of a thinking culture is getting more worrying and is becoming a major challenge to our academic society.

In Malaysia, exams act as a ‘quality control’ check on potential employees, starting from seven- year-old primary students to the fresh graduates in their early twenties.

As a result of heavy emphasis on examinations, the argumentative culture, which is needed for empowering thinking is being suppressed, hence causing the death of dialectics.

This situation is exaggerated by government suppression through various restrictions imposed on members of academia like laws such as the Universities and Universities Colleges Act (UUCA) and the Statutory Bodies Act, plus the need to have teaching permits for lecturers.

Over commercialisation has resulted in the mushrooming of colleges, universities or even private schools, thus overwhelmingly increasing the supply of education services.

Simple economic theory will tell that increase in supply (education institutions) without an increase in demand (students) will lead to a decrease in price (quality of education through lower entry requirements).

Over supply of graduates could also cause unemployment and underemployment. Professor Khoo Kay Kim has contrasted the situation in the millennium era with that of University Malaya's early days, when a mere 25 percent of its students who had come in as freshies would walk up the stage to receive their degrees on convocation day, four or five years later.

But now, the passing rate in the university is very high, exceeding 90 percent and this is even more apparent in private universities because failing the students mean alienating potential customers.

Besides that, Malaysia’s academic excellence is being threatened by career minded school teachers and university lecturers who view their academic posts as careers and assume academic activities as ‘teaching only’.

The worst is the assumption that an academic job is an easy job for a stable income. They will not bother or might even discourage others from conducting research.

On top of that, flexible working hours accorded by the institutions of higher education for research purposes are utilised by careerists to earn extra income from giving part-time tuition, selling unit trusts or partaking in direct selling.

Let us also not forget about a shocking effect from this market-driven education – the issue of "thesis outsourcing" in Malaysia. This issue made headlines in December 2007. It was reported that hundreds of master’s and PhD students in Malaysia were getting "professional thesis writers" to pen their thesis.

The Higher Education Ministry said it was aware of this, but as educational institutions were not complaining about it, little could be done to put a stop to this shameful practice.
Last but not least, administrative hegemony, that comes together with discrimination, would continue to derail Malaysian academics towards excellence regardless of what the government has planned.

Two prominent cases worth mentioning: Firstly, Prof KS Jomo, an internationally renowned Malaysian economist left University Malaya for the United Nations early this year to take up appointment of assistant secretary-general after "decades of frustration, discrimination and non-recognition of his academic and intellectual talents and qualities".

Jomo was never given any senior appointment, although many of his students have been made deans of faculty or heads of department. His application to be a senior professor was supported by three Nobel laureates as referees, but was rejected.

The second case is of Associate Prof Dr Edmund Terence Gomez, also from University Malaya. Despite being given strong verbal assurance by the university’s vice-chancellor, Gomez was initially denied a two-year leave of secondment to take up the prestigious research appointment as Project Manager at the Geneva-based United Nations Research Institute for Social Development to pioneer global research on racial conflict.

The university claimed it turned down the application because it needed the services of the lecturer.

In the two cases mentioned, international recognition for Jomo and Gomez should have been seen as an honour to the universities and their outstanding achievements should have been encouraged. Political or racial discrimination should not interfere and control academic freedom and fairness.

So, whither Malaysia’s academia? Could the Apex University programme save our education system from the end of academia? The whole education system should be re-evaluated and upgraded. Academic freedom and fairness should be guaranteed.

Failing to do so might resulted in Malaysians losing confidence in their own education system and therefore sending their children to international schools and foreign universities. There have been rumors that even our ministers are doing so. If this is true, what else can we say?