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The 2nd World University Rankings listing the world's top 200 universities compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) puts one Malaysian university (University of Malaya UM) at 169, when it was at 89 placing last year.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) stands proudly at a credible 22nd position. They were established as a single entity King Edward VII College in 1905, became Raffles College in 1929 and University of Malaya in 1949.

University Malaya Kuala Lumpur was established in 1961, while its Singapore campus changed its name to the NUS at around this time. But, despite their common origin, there is an incredible performance gap between the two institutions, too glaring to be missed and ignored.

Indeed the very fact that the UM had experienced a free fall in its ranking has prompted Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Opposition to describe it as a 'national shame' and a 'very sick indeed' situation. He called for a 'soul searching' and for the establishment of a Royal Commission of Enquiry to urgently look into the matter so as to arrest this precipitous decline.

I agree wholeheartedly with Lim's sobering analysis. I agree also with his call for the setting up of this Royal Commission. I am an interested party, for the present students in the UM would be the next leaders for my children and grandchildren. I do not wish for professionally incompetent and half-baked UM medical graduates to attend to my children's sickness, for example.

Before the Royal Commission hopefully sits and make its independent inquiry, I wish to identify some of the most likely causes for this sharp downfall. I have the experience of having studied in a British university for my degree and at the UM for a diploma which has given an impetus for dichotomy. In any case university decline has been the subject of scrutiny by the Malaysian public, as evidenced by the writings and experiences of Terrence Gomez, Ramasamy, Azly Rahman and many others.

A quick look at the first 50 universities named in the THES list might provide some clues. Firstly, 43 (that's a whopping 86 percent) of them are from the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, India and Singapore. They share one thing in common: these universities are English-speaking, and conduct all of their activities in English. The remaining seven are from France, Germany, Switzerland, China and Japan, and presumably use their respective 'mother tongues' in the campus.

English a mature language

The use of the English language is arguably a huge contributory factor that helps to push these universities to the topmost levels. This contention makes sense because this language is mature, flexible and conceptual in nature. It is the foremost language for the arts, sciences, and technology. It has a vast storage of human knowledge in its reservoir, perhaps the biggest in the world. Mention any subject under the sun, and chances are there can be many hundreds if not thousands of English books that cover it.

The British Library for example has 150 million items in its catalogue, and growing by three million items every year. Imagine reading them at the rate of five per day will take 80,000 years to complete. English-speaking and teaching universities, teachers, and students, automatically has this tremendous access and enormous advantage over others.

Secondly the top universities have followed a very sound policy for hiring their lecturers and professors; they choose the best, most qualified, and most experienced individuals available. If necessary they do not shy from getting these teachers from the international pool, irrespective of their colour, origin, culture and creed. The spirit of competition in striving for excellence is vigorously applied and nurtured in these top campuses.

On the same token their student enrolment policy would warrant them to accept the most talented, bright, with high achievement motivation, and qualified students, from within their countries as well as from international sources. This cross-cultural openness can and does provide value add to the learning process at the university campus.

Both teacher and student population of these top universities therefore comprise of individuals with high motivation, with a committed sense of vision and mission, of striving for excellence, and of readiness to explore the Unknown. They are ready willing and able to accept change.

Thirdly, these top universities operate in a democratic political climate and civic society. These countries (US, UK, for example) are very democratic in their political systems, where the freedom of the individual is guaranteed. The democratic spirit is evident in the campuses as well. Teachers and students alike are therefore free to seek knowledge, and encouraged to express their opinions, read any book they like, write anything they like. Students are taught to think for themselves, and to develop their personality and sense of the individual within them. Their tutors consistently ask them "What do you think?"

They are trained to think, to conceptualise and intellectualise.

Their impressionist minds can then roam untrammelled, and enabling them to explore and discover fresh new cutting-edge ideas. They are more creative and imaginative, and more curious, all solid ingredients for the positive development of the human intellect.

Three factors

When they seek knowledge they do so with complete freedom of the mind.

To me these are the glaring clues should be addresses by any Commission member. In the meantime I'd relate why these three factors have done massive damage to the UM.

On the question of language use, the UM used English solely since its inception. But somewhere in the seventies, a student body and the general population instigated for the use of Bahasa Malaysia (as it was known then) in place of English.

Bahasa Malaysia unfortunately is not a fraction as mature; instead it is quite rigid and inflexible in its structure. It is not conceptual, and has hardly any measure of reservoir of human knowledge to bandy about. By resorting only in Bahasa Malaysia the student population had unwittingly foregone their avenue for conceptualization and letting go of their advantage of having access to a vast reservoir of knowledge and information.

The UM used to adhere to the spirit of competition and merit on their appointment of lecturers and students. Instead, the teachers are selected mainly from the Malay or bumiputera population, and its student enrolment likewise has to meet with a quota system that heavily favours the Malay and bumiputera. There is thus a fusion of the element of ethnocentrism into this campus. Ethnocentrism is bad for it is devoid of the benefits of fresh new ideas that only cross-cultural exchange can bring.

As for the basic freedom of speech and expression, the UM is a bit wanting. The crux of the matter is that the university is funded by the government. The government is somehow uncomfortable with criticism and dissent, as if it goes by the adage 'if you are not for me, you are against me.'

It provides the money and demand loyalty in return. Thus the University and University College Act was passed in 1971 when academicians and students had to sign 'Akujanji' to demonstrate their loyalty to the university. The minister for higher education is on record as saying that this pledge is akin to a Muslim's prayer to God.

We are led to believe this code is designed for the students to just concentrate in their studies, and not to waste their time by getting involved in politics, opposition politics in particular.

But the Law of unintended consequences has a way of intervening: the institutionalized control mechanism inculcated the element of fear on the part of the teachers and students alike. Fear is an unwelcome element in the path of seeking knowledge and has obviously contributed the element of negative psychological impact to the university. It does not lead to intellectual honesty and integrity, but instead to go for compromises, half truths and rationalisations.

Meanwhile, the UM work in concert with the authorities as one of the agents for 'social engineering', for producing Malay and bumiputera qualified in various professional fields like engineering, accountancy and medicine in sufficient numbers. The quota system is at one side of this programme. On its other side is the willingness of the UM to lower examination passing marks just to make up the numbers. High standards are compromised just to meet some numerical national social engineering targets.

Reduced to conformists

The unintended consequences are dire: teachers teach only whatever is necessary and become mediocre in their performance, and students do not shine because they do not see any further than the need to pass an exam. They seem to be taught thus: "This is how I want you to think. This is the book you can read. Those are books you cannot read." Do not talk about achievement motivation and striving for excellence to the students when they are taught only to conform and to the protection of the status quo.

Teachers and students alike are reduced to conformists. Teachers have to conform to the wishes of the university management only in order not to jeopardize their career prospects. Students on the same token have to behave to help ensure their studies are not interrupted by dismissals. Teachers lecture in order to guarantee their monthly salary, and students study just to pass an exam and get a degree.

What has caused the country to lead to the development of these negative features in the UM? Who is accountable for this entire fiasco?

The Royal Commission might have their eventual answers. But I might offer my ten sen worth here. The major culprit in my mind is the mainstream and generic Malay mentality, the 'Ketuanan Melayu' political administration and environment running the country. This comprises the political leaders, the bureaucrats, the voters; the religious gurus. It is one mind just coming out from its traditional past and having to meet with the challenges of the modern world. It is meeting with a whole gamut of changes it has never seen before - urbanization, modernization, modern amenities, the money economy, modern technology, the changing roles of women, even the introduction of the Westminster-type constitutional monarchy.

Any one of these represents a major change agent. For the Malay mind having to deal with them all together and at the same time would require a superhuman mental set. Obviously it is unable to cope.

'Ketuanan Melayu' as an entity has not done well as demonstrated in the case of the UM. This university has seen greatness in the past and its sister institution the NUS has provided as a humbling reminder of where it can be today. Any hope for improvement in the UM and by extension in the other public universities as well should well begin with a change of mindset of the Malay-dominated political establishment.

If this change begins today, it will take about 30 years (that's one generation) before any meaning effect can be felt. I'll be a bit more optimistic on this projection: 15 year from today, to meet with the vision 2020 target date. In the meantime though, Malaysians will have to brace for some more UM decline from the THES list.

AB SULAIMAN is an observer of human traits and foibles, especially within the context of religion and culture. As a liberal, he marvels at the way orthodoxy fights to maintain its credibility in a devilishly fast-changing world. In his free time, he loves to read, travel and play golf (although his game could be better).