LETTER | As many academic staff in all Malaysian universities can testify, leadership of higher education institutions under the previous BN government was a system of patronage, political nepotism and opportunism.
To be a vice-chancellor (VC) or deputy vice-chancellor (DVC) or equivalent post, you must have an Umno membership card as the first (and often only) requirement. A background check on each candidate was even handed out to the police Special Branch to determine the political affiliations of each candidate.
You need to be closely associated to the education minister, implement Umno policies and make sure no opposition to the ruling government of the day exists be it from students and/or staff. Non-performing VCs who were Umno diehards had their terms in office renewed despite the wishes of their staff for new blood and change.
The University Act was a hated instrument of repression meant to stifle ideas, opinions and creativity of students and academics alike. During elections and by-elections, VCs virtually camped in the constituencies ostensibly on the lookout for their own students who were not allowed to campaign for the opposition.
But they themselves and their legions of sycophants (amongst which was the disgraced Majlis Profesor Negara) took it amongst themselves to campaign openly for the ruling government, selling the policies and also their souls in order to make sure their posts would be assured.
Many deserving and distinguished professors and academics were denied the chance to helm university administration posts because either they were politically neutral or deemed to be anti-government (read Umno).
This system of mediocrity perpetuated since the 1970s was hated by students and academics alike.
It was no wonder that in 2018, a majority of academics and students hoping for real change and a new reformation of higher education were excited when Pakatan Harapan won and formed the new government.
The then-new minister of education had the tremendous task of reforming the education system, governance and management structures from ministerial level down to the university level which was no mean task.
The main thrusts of his reform agenda for Malaysian higher education fell into three categories.
Firstly, re-empowering universities through greater autonomy by repealing a section of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA). Students’ Committees are allowed to conduct their own campus elections without the Students Academic Division’s Affairs interference, connivance and open favouring of pro-establishment groups of yesteryear. Academics were encouraged to publish and speak openly within their disciplines of knowledge to educate and bring public awareness upon the issues of the day.
Indeed, on certain political issues of the day, for instance, the UEC, ratification of Statute of Rome etc., students of some universities demonstrated their opposition with full cooperation and tolerance of the authorities. Some even managed to see the then education minister to present their memorandum of protests. This was unheard of before and previously students who initiated any forms of protests faced suspensions, fines and even expulsion for daring to speak against the government.
Secondly, other reforms were introduced including improving corporate governance by appointing eminent figures as members of the vice-chancellor selection committee in order to make sure only the best candidates are selected to become vice-chancellors of the public universities. Increased autonomy in the governance of the public universities was initiated, granting more power to the universities' board of directors
Thirdly, for the first-time, disability inclusion guidelines were launched which firmly puts students and staff with disabilities into the mainstream of higher education. The future of education was launched with its emphasis on empowering of students, flexible education, creativity and critical thinking skills, skills and competencies for the 21st-century digital era amongst others.
These bold reforms were much needed and long overdue and the crux of these reforms was broadly welcomed by the academic and student communities.
The minister did not survive long enough to see the fruits of his toils but in reality, it did not matter. What matters is that the legacy that he left behind are the seeds for reformation upon which real change could be affected and which subsequent ministers can and should build upon if the hope for a more educated, creative and progressive Bangsa Malaysia is to be realised.
Fast forward to the Sheraton Hotel imbroglio and now we have a new government. Behind the eyes of the public, massive changes are currently being planned and executed. Aided by Umno diehards, a new director of higher education is being pushed through without going through the usual channels. Informed sources indicate that he is the former VC of a local northern university who is a staunch Umno stalwart and who actively campaigned for BN in the last election.
In two universities, one in the east coast and one in southern Malaysia, two non-performing VCs who reached the end of their terms had their terms renewed by order of the new government. Both are known as strong Umno supporters and had strong "cables".
There are many such hanky-panky instances going on at the moment that even officials in the Public Service Department are becoming alarmed with the speed of these changes.
It's like the song Yesterday Once More only with sinister rather than nostalgic undertones. The academia is being called to heel under this new establishment erasing in one pen stroke the hard-worn reformations achieved just 22 months ago.
Like magic, Umno psychopaths, flatterers and bootlickers are emerging from hibernation to reclaim the positions they lost and becoming more vocal in their unwavering praise and support of the new and unelected government.
A massive cull involving the removal of vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, distinguished members of the board of directors are in the offing just like what is currently happening in most of the other ministries where respected public people who are selected after a long process of due diligence and scrutiny are overnight being summarily terminated and replaced by Umno appointees some of whom were known to have played nefarious roles in the 1MDB fiasco and other corrupt practices.
So, are we to witness a complete reversal of reforms to a state that existed before the 2018 general election in order that UMNO can continue to perpetuate its dominance? Is the mandate given by the rakyat for reforms to be undermined?
The new government is accountable to the rakyat for the rest of its term or will face judgement at the 15th general election. We as the responsible rakyat, taxpayers and future GE15 voters demand the answers to these questions;
What is the new government's vision for higher education in Malaysia – reformation or "re-umnosisation"? To the future or back to the past?
What are the actual priorities? Repopulating the ministry with Umno stalwarts or tackling more fundamental issues like Covid-19 and its impact on Malaysian higher education, graduate employability, 21st-century future skills and competencies, education philosophy?
Replacing existing academic administrators is the new government's right but do not override and disregard the guidelines and procedures already put in place. Performance must be the sole criteria, not political affiliation or non-affiliation.
We reject outright dismissals solely for the purpose of reinstating a flawed system of partisan yes-men and yes-women, the practice of which has previously landed Malaysian Higher Education management in the lap of mediocrity.
Anybody can organize a TikTok competition. But staying true to the path of reformation to allow Malaysian higher education to progress needs someone with real character. Does the new government have what it takes?
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.