Why there is no academic freedom in Malaysia


All university staff and students are required to swear allegiance to the Barisan Nasional government, rather than the constitution of Malaysia or the Agong. 

Murray Hunter, TMI

The Malaysian government is trying to develop the country into an education hub.

Most universities seek awards of excellence and to get their institutions into the rankings.

However, even with these aspirations, Malaysia’s overall rankings have been slipping over the last decade, while many other universities within the region have been rising dramatically.

As a consequence, Malaysian universities have been open to both domestic and international criticism, which has often resulted in successive ministers of education defend their standing.

The government is pursuing new reforms and just recently released the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 with much fanfare. However, something conspicuously absent from these proposed reforms is more academic freedom.

Academic freedom of expression is extremely low in Malaysia.

There are two parts to the concept.

The first is about institutional freedom where a university should be autonomous, with full accountability, where the university administration is free to make independent decisions about mission, governance, hiring of academic leaders, academic and non-academic staff, selecting students, and introducing new programs and courses.

The second aspect is individual academic freedom, where there is a climate promoting freedom to teach what an academic thinks is right, freedom of expression within the public domain on issues, freedom to associate with others, with integrity.

In Malaysian public universities today, both staff and students are formally forbidden, except with permission from their respective vice-chancellors, to express opinions publicly, write about, or organise or participate in forums about politics, religion (particularly Islam) and education. They are not allowed to criticise their own institutions.

The ministry has given directives that no staff should talk to the media on sensitive issues without permission. This ban does not just include the areas mentioned above, but also environmental issues like haze.

The Malaysian Bar Association claims that this directive breaches Section 10 of the Malaysian Constitution guaranteeing free speech.

In addition to the formal directives, informal bans exist on research and discussion about ethnic conflict and local corruption, especially if research findings might raise questions about government policy.

Sanctions for violating these rules and norms range from rebukes from administrators, to the loss of jobs through the non-renewal of work contracts, to prosecution in the court system through sedition laws, etc.

The use of teaching contracts is particularly powerful in curbing free speech of academics, where academics fear they will not get extensions if they don’t carry favour with administrators.

Malaysian academics even need permission from the vice-chancellor to attend any conference and travel outside their own state within Malaysia.

All university staff and students are required to swear allegiance to the Barisan Nasional government, rather than the constitution of Malaysia or the Agong.

They must promise to follow directions of their immediate superiors and the government of the day without question or criticism.

Some academics tried to oppose the swearing of allegiance to the government a few years ago, to no avail.

The fact is, today Malaysian public universities don’t make independent decisions about their respective missions, hiring of academic leaders, and recruitment of staff, student intake, and the introduction of new programmes and courses. This is still completely in the hands of the ministry.

The Education Ministry strictly controls what courses any university may offer, and all curriculum must be approved prior to teaching.

The ministry has even specified some compulsory subjects that must be taken by all students in Malaysia such as Asian Civilization and Malay Studies. Some argue these subjects are controversial in the religious views put forward.

Malaysian universities are part of the apparatus of government rather than being an independent source of ideas and policy.

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