The recent appalling treatment of Associate Professor Edmund Terence Gomez by the University of Malaya (UM) has repercussions far beyond the parochial imagination of the university's administrators.
While many have written about the domestic impact of Gomez's departure from UM, we must not underestimate the negative effect of this issue stemming from abroad.
Firstly, this episode only cements the view of foreign academics regarding the precipitous decline in the standards of academia in public universities in Malaysia. Academics in leading universities in the Australia, the UK and the US who are familiar with Malaysia and care about the academic standards in public universities would no doubt be exasperated, disappointed and frustrated at the bizarre and seemingly vindictive treatment given to Gomez.
The academia is a small world with only a few degrees of separation and it would not surprise me in the least if word of this incident has made its rounds among the academia, especially those who keep track of what's going on in Malaysia.
The spread of this kind of negative impressions has serious consequences, some more tangible than others. The ranking of Malaysian public universities as places to conduct good and groundbreaking research would no doubt be affected. There might be spillover effects into the other areas such as the perception of economic freedom and the general business environment.
It would certainly make it harder, if not impossible, to recruit respected foreign academics to teach in public universities in Malaysia. Even as our neighbor down south is pouring money into improving their public universities to number among the top flight universities in Asia.
Malaysia seems to be going the opposite direction by getting rid of good talent and creating an environment which is not conducive to attracting top talent.
Perhaps an even bigger loss to the country and its public universities is not the talent that it is getting rid off or the foreign talent that it would not be able to recruit, but the fact that many Malaysians who are doing their PhDs abroad would be further dissuaded from coming back to teach and contribute to the Malaysian academia.
Many of these researchers would be 'lost' to Malaysia as the possibility of them returning to work back home is almost negligible especially after they have tasted the benefits of working at a leading university abroad the salary, perks, research resources, good colleagues and not the least, the academic freedom.
As someone who has just finished his first year of coursework in the political science PhD programme at the Duke University here, I certainly wouldn't contemplate working in an academic setting such as the UM, especially in light of Gomez's treatment.
At least I have a choice. I sympathise with some of my other friends who are doing their PhDs and are bonded by public universities in Malaysia. What will this episode do to their morale? What does this tell them in terms of the rewards for conducting good research and for trying to garner valuable experience in prestigious foreign research institutions?
Secondly, the ignorant university administrators might not realise that by getting rid of prominent and respected academics such as Gomez and KS Jomo before him, they are also decreasing the chances for many local graduates to get into a top notch research university abroad.
My experience of applying for a PhD programme here in the US is that good GRE and TOEFL scores, a good undergraduate academic background and interesting research proposals are not sufficient to get one into a top notch research university.
To distinguish your application from the many hundreds of others, often you have to rely on good academic referees who know faculty members at these universities. Like it or not, it is people like Gomez and Jomo, among many others, who can open doors for aspiring PhD candidates who have graduated from local universities and who want to further their education abroad.
Getting rid of the likes of Gomez and Jomo would restrict the opportunities for local undergraduates further down the line to get into good foreign universities abroad.
But perhaps I've been unfairly critical of the UM administrators, that they have ignored many of these implications in their move to get rid of Gomez and Jomo before him. Perhaps they are more than aware of these effects and more. Perhaps this is part of a consistent and coherent strategy by the administrators to maintain an environment mired in mediocrity even as the rest of the world passes them by.