Docile academics and the case of Prof. Aziz Bari

Dr Lim Teck Ghee

Minister of Higher Education Khaled Nordin, in his speech announcing the establishment of the National Council of Professors, reminded Malaysian professors to not only be “super gurus” in focusing on their respective careers but to contribute their expertise and participate in national life.

The recently established professors’ council comprising over 1,500 professors in the public universities did indeed weigh in on a national debate not too long ago, namely, ‘Was Mat Indera a communist or a patriot?’

Academics such as professors and professor emeritus Ridhuan Tee, Ramlah Adam, Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Khoo Kay Kim, and their ilk enjoy the academic rights and freedom of expression through their comments appearing regularly in the mass media.

Having themselves taken advantage of these rights – in my view, correctly so, and one further assumes they would want to continue to enjoy such freedom – their silence therefore on the action taken by International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) don, Prof. Abdul Aziz Bari, is somewhat of an anomaly.

Prof. Aziz Bari has the responsibility to use his expertise to enlighten the public on matters related to his field of interest and scholarship, which extends to commenting on Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah’s recent decree in relation to the raid on a Methodist church in Damansara Utama by the Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor.

Over 140 academics signed a petition supporting Prof Aziz Bari in this and condemning the authorities for coming down on his academic rights and freedom.

In addition to the petition signed by academics in their individual capacity, there have been statements from five academic organizations condemning the actions by the authorities against Prof. Aziz.

The five organizations are the academic staff associations of IIUM, Universiti Malaya and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia;  Ikatan Ilmuan Nasional (Ilmuan); and the Malaysian Academic Movement (Move), with the last being the earliest to come out with a press statement on Oct 19 decrying the actions taken by the authorities.

But where is the voice of the National Council of Professors on this developing controversy? Or for that matter other prominent academic organizations such as the Malaysian Social Science Association.

And what about the rest of the numerous academic staff associations as well as other professional organizations spawned by and working in the burgeoning number of public and private universities in the country?

Prof. Aziz Bari presents an important test case of academic freedom. Yet the majority of staff associations and many thousands of individual academics have not put their names to the petition or voiced their support for Prof. Aziz Bari and in defence of the cause of academic freedom.

The silence of the great majority of the country’s academia – individually and collectively – can be attributed to various reasons including:

  • They are not aware of the case of Prof Aziz Bari.
  • They could not care less about what is happening in the case.
  • They are concerned but either cannot be bothered to voice their concerns or are too afraid of what they feel may be adverse repercussions to their careers.

What is especially noticeable is the silence from some of the most vocal academics whose views on race, religion, history and politics, etc. are much sought after by the mainstream media.

One assumes that they should want to provide feedback in their own areas of expertise without fear of being victimised by the authorities or being hauled up under the Universities and University Colleges Act; Aku Janji; or other regulations. One also assumes that they would be in sympathy with Prof. Aziz Bari and should be among the first to protest against the harsh and unacceptable actions taken.

But perhaps their silence is because they think Prof. Aziz Bari deserves being punished whilst they themselves have special immunity from the treatment meted out to other academics that dare to speak out against the status quo.

However now is not the time for the rest of the traditional ‘silent majority’ (over 35,000 academics in the public universities and possibly similar numbers in the private universities) to become deaf and mute.

If they have not done so, it is not too late for them to declare their support for academic freedom by adding their names to the signature campaign which can be found here.

Prof. Aziz Bari was doing exactly what the Minister of Higher Education was calling for, that is, for academics to descend from the ivory tower and contribute their knowledge to national issues.

All academics should stand by and with Prof. Aziz Bari.

We should also all be aware of the truism: ‘If you don’t exercise your rights, if you don’t show the government that you value those rights, eventually you will lose them.’