What does the Malay Dignity Congress tell us about our universities and academia?

Professors, vice-chancellors and students were there where racism and bigotry were encouraged, applauded and celebrated.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi, The Star

THE aftermath of the Malay Dignity Congress organised by four public universities – Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) – has left Malaysians pondering a simple question:

What the hell is going on with our public universities?

Even I, already a known critic of our universities’ contribution to nation building, was shocked at the blatant and unashamed speeches by academics and students at the Congress that virtually destroyed whatever there is left of the idea and ideals of Malaysia as a shared nation between different faiths and cultures.

Only the sensible voice of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad managed to turn the tables on those so-called academics and their political partners, shocking them with a traumatic backlash.

The academics gave speeches against non-Malays by citing examples that had no academic worth at all.

That a university would propose such a “congress” without inviting opposing viewpoints while barring other races from attending, smacked clearly of a political agenda that violates the ideals of academic scholarship.

Three years ago, I remember calling a reporter for an interview on the fate of Malaysia in the near future, with the 14th General Election (GE14) looming ahead.

The reporter was interested in what I had to say and asked the important question; what would happen to Malaysia if such-and-such a party won the election?

My answer, I could see, was most disappointing to her. So much so that she ultimately reported only a single paragraph of what I had deliberated on.

What was my response? I remember saying that it does not matter which party wins because the fate of the country lies with what happens to three players: universities, and the academics and students of these universities.

I could sense that the reporter thought that I was being extremely silly and mired in self-importance simply because I was a professor and the whole world surrounds academia.

What she failed to understand was that as academics, we spend our lives understanding the root of problems, not just the problem itself. The PhD process forces you to peel off any problem to its very root and kernel, and then you build up a new list of questions.

We deal with the foundation of issues, and answer problems with a structured response that sees the problem decades ahead.

I remember explaining that at first, universities must restructure their KPIs (key performance indicators) and make sure that research has a clear societal and environmental impact.

There is no point having an H-index of 40 by citing your own work in environmental engineering when you can’t help the 2,000 of our children who almost died of poisonous fumes from Sungai Kim Kim. There is no point getting promoted to professor or a vice-chancellorship at an “Islamic” university when Muslims use the word kafir on non-Muslims and say that only Muslims can hold top positions, even those who are known kleptocrats.

Secondly, I told the journalist, the academic must have the sense of being an agent for change in society and the nation.

Academics must rewrite the narrative for the nation and not leave it up to politicians of either divide.

Nowadays, most academics just want their research grant to present papers overseas and pay for their papers to be published in international journals, just so that they get the accounting for a promotion.

I have rejected many applications for a professorship in architecture because I saw no contribution to society and no legacy framework to project the discipline into changing society and the environment.

Thirdly, I said that students must be taught that this country belongs to them and not to politicians.

Students must understand that if the nation fails in any way – socially, environmentally, or economically – it is due to their own apathy and narrow-mindedness.

Thus, with these three important players, a nation can be rebuilt to have sustained real and genuine prosperity.

What of our public universities now? So what if some have improved in the rankings? Who cares?

When a public university organised an LGBT-bashing conference some years back, it showed that the university clearly does not understand our Federal Constitution or even basic human dignity. That is the level of our academia.

When another public university organised a Christian-bashing conference, its academics were the same as those at the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) university conference.

Neither university invited alternate viewpoints from LGBTs or Christians, and both conferences were closed sessions that seem more of a “briefing” than any real intellectual discourse.

Recently, Murray Hunter of Asia Sentinel gave an embarrassing dressing-down of our public universities.

Firstly, he questioned the vision of public universities and noted that none was seriously interested in social change but only the production of workers.

Secondly, he mentioned that the universities are “race-biased”, emphasising a Malay administration culture.

Thirdly, there was too much emphasis on Islam, and encouraging bigotry was rampant in these public universities.

I have only written about Murray’s first criticism but not the other two. Now, after the Malay Dignity Congress, what he has alleged has become undeniable fact.

Professors, vice-chancellors and students were there where racism and bigotry were encouraged, applauded and celebrated.

Whither now, public universities?

A call for the resignation of the university leadership was made by a student body at UM. I have never supported such calls or actions before, but Malaysians must take this call under serious consideration.

The scar of the Congress runs deep, and its infection may be incurable if drastic measures are not taken.

I would firstly call on the leadership of the four universities to step up to the plate and explain to the Malaysian people their excuses, and apologise for holding the Congress.

Secondly, I would like to call on the Education Ministry to appoint three civil society members to the board of directors of each of these four universities, and later on, to the boards of all the other 16 public universities.

These civil society members should come from respected NGOs representing all Malaysians. I recommend working with Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM), an entity comprising multiracial and multi-faith NGOs and groups.

GBM can sit and decide who should be appointed, and submit the names for official appointment by the Ministry. The Ministry itself should have no say in these appointments as they come directly from the people.

We can no longer trust academics and industrialists to fill the boards of universities; we need “people-conscious” Malaysians.

The three must be of different races and faiths and do not need to have a PhD. Judging by the Congress, a PhD or a string of papers being published in journals does not necessarily make a good Malaysian.

Universities must regain the trust of the people. Malaysian taxpayers may not see much value in funding academic racism and bigotry in the near future.

The writer is professor of architecture at UCSI University, and has been an academic at both public and private universities over the past 32 years. The writer’s views are his own.