Malaysiakini Letter

Political interference in universities wont help

Jomo KS  |  Published:  |  Modified:

With regards to your report Jomo: UM victimised me, too , I am afraid malaysiakini missed the whole point of my argument at the Malaysian Social Science Association forum on June 18 on the origins of the problems in Malaysian universities.

It was never my intention to discuss the circumstances under which I left Universiti Malaya last year except to clarify the misconception that I left UM to join the United Nations.

I merely clarified that I had applied for early retirement in mid-2004 before I was offered my current position in the last quarter. I also emphasised that I had no intention of discussing matters at UM as most of my colleagues are still there (some have previously been unfairly treated) and I would not want to make life more difficult for them in the prevailing atmosphere.

Let me be clear. I did not quit because I was frustrated about not becoming a dean or deputy vice- chancellor or even obtaining the senior professorship I had unsuccessfully applied for. To be sure, I quit as head of department in the early 1990s as soon as I was appointed as I had no interest in becoming part of management.

I did nothing to protest when I was removed as professor in 1989 by then vice-chancellor Syed Hussein Alatas, and I never publicised the fact that Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz were my referees for my application for a senior professorship.

Perhaps a well-meaning friend told Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang, but I have never approached him, or any other politician, from the government or opposition, about university matters.

Ironically, fair-minded administrators, sometimes members of Umno themselves, helped me survive more than 28 years in Malaysian public universities, while other ostensible born-again liberals have had some embarrassing skeletons in their closets, especially while they were seeking career ascendance.

When a minister was approached to bring up my removal (as a professor) in the cabinet in early 1990, I wrote to then education minister Anwar Ibrahim that I opposed all interference by politicians, even if ostensibly in my favour.

While what happened to Edmund Terence Gomez was most certainly reprehensible, it is a sad comment on Malaysian universities and public affairs that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had to personally intervene to reverse UM's decision.

Part of the problem now is that some academics now seek to advance their careers by lobbying politicians, exacerbating the politicisation of the universities ad nauseum, while politicians may be willing to extend patronage for their own reasons.

This has been exacerbated by the growing obsession in recent decades of some ruling party politicians in trying to 'micro-control' the universities, especially student politics, not realising that many of the more capable politicians in Umno started off as dissident student leaders.

It is a pity that the Malaysian Social Science Association forum was so poorly reported by the Malaysian media, which only helps to perpetuate the problems. I appreciate that such long-term problems may not be deemed newsworthy, but a superficial focus on sensational news-breaking only ensures that we miss the forest for the trees.

The problems in our universities are very serious, but focusing on a high-profile case or two will hardly help. Likewise, political interference is part of the problem and not the solution, although the requisite political will - to see reform through - is certainly needed.

I hope malaysiakini's forthcoming series on higher education reforms will do justice to difficult problems requiring difficult solutions. We are unlikely to make serious progress in improving Malaysian universities until we address how and why things have deteriorated over the decades, and focus on serious efforts to improve these seemingly irreversible conditions.

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