Thursday, 19 January 2017

BNW Show 18 January 2017

BNW Show 11 January 2017

Justifying funding for higher education

Brave New World (The Star)
18 January 2017


I GREW up on the Universiti Sains Malaysia campus because my father worked there. Our house was a short bike ride away and my brother and I used to cycle all over the place. It was really a beautiful campus with old colonial-era buildings set on hills overlooking the sea.
We swam in the old pool with its high diving board and we had school concerts in its halls (using our insider connections). On Fridays and Hari Raya, we would pray in the university mosque.
So, I am very fond of the place.
I am therefore relieved that the university chose to cancel a seminar on black magic.
Now, having an academic seminar on black magic is not by itself a bad thing. Whether we like it or not, people believe in the thing and as such it is worthy of sociological and anthropological study. However, the seminar in question was dealing with it as though it is a scientific fact with medical repercussions.
It is one thing to study what people and communities believe; it is quite another to give such belief scientific credence when there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that these “beliefs” are “fact”. If one were to be charitable, one could say that such an endeavour is of questionable academic merit.
And yet this is not the first time that public universities have done such things. We have had a university produce “possession kits” to help those taken over by spirits, for goodness sake.
Why would institutions of higher learning be doing such things?
Well, the answer is obvious. There are academic staff in these universities who believe in such things. They believe in spirits and possession and spells. And this is not surprising at all.
Malaysians are a superstitious people and although no study has been conducted (now, there is an idea for a true academic study), I am certain that the majority of our people think that magic (black or otherwise) is real.
Now, I am not here to criticise what people choose to believe in. As long as you are not hurting anyone, go ahead, knock yourself out and believe what you want.
However, universities must be places where personal belief systems must not be confused with what makes a topic worthy of academic study.
Universities must take their research and other academic activities seriously, otherwise they run the risk of not being taken seriously.
As it is, Malaysian universities are under serious threat as our funding has been cut to the point where, over time, we will have difficulty even paying our staff.
As such, the work that we produce and the graduates that we produce must be as good as possible so that the Government won’t have the justification to cut our funds any more.
It is said that in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, Malaysia is one of the countries that spend the most on institutions of higher learning and yet, in terms of international recognition, we don’t do so well. The question, then, is why this is so.
Clearly, there has to be proper investigation as to where the money is going. Is there wastage?
For example, in infrastructure development, are we paying what ought to be paid?
Apart from firming up on the types of academic endeavours we take part in and smashing any corruption if it exists, universities can do other things to improve. Here are some suggestions that will cost no money whatsoever.
First and foremost; stop harassing the students. If they have a point of view and they want to express it, then let them do so.
If you treat university students like school children, you will get school children graduating.
Secondly, if the staff want to use their expertise to give their opinions publicly, let them do so. We are often accused of staying in our ivory towers and yet university management don’t like us speaking our mind to the public at large.
As public universities, our money comes from the people.

Our responsibility therefore is not just to our students and the academic community, but also to the people, and what we can do best is share our knowledge to try to deal with problems of the day.

BNW Show 28 December 2016

Monday, 26 December 2016

BNW Show 22 December 2016

We are not fine if we do not define

Brave New World (The Star)
21 December 2016


I WAS an appalling student in university. I never came close to scoring a first for any of my exams ... except once.

It was in my second year and the paper was Crime. Before the exams, somehow I got the name of the external examiner for Crime. I am not clever, but I had my moments of cunning. So I searched high and low to find articles written by this particular professor. He wrote a lot about theft and I studied those articles very closely.
Come exam time I made sure to answer the question on theft and I made doubly sure to put in lots of quotes by the “brilliant professor so and so”.
As an unintended side effect of my attempts to be cunning I actually read more than I would normally have and I did pretty well in my Crime exam. In fact my paper was a borderline first. That’s like an A. I never got an A for anything in university.
Aha! This is where my scheming was to pay off. Borderline cases are sent to the external examiner and surely he would not be immune to the thick layers of praise I had spread around in my paper. All that talk about his intellect and acumen was surely worth the two extra marks to push my paper up from a 2.1. to a first.
You know what? The damned fool pushed me down.
Is there a moral to this story? I have no idea; I suppose there must be. But I didn’t tell this story so that it can be some sort of ethical Christmas tale.
The reason I raised it is because of all that reading I did (albeit with rather less-than-pure motives), I remember the definition of theft better than anything else from my undergraduate years. From memory, I think theft is “the appropriation of property with the intention to permanently deprive the rightful owner of said property”.
Definitions are important in law. We need to be clear as to what a crime is in order to avoid injustice. If there is no clarity and the law is overly vague, then a person may be found guilty of committing an offence that they had no idea was an offence.
Let me give you a couple of examples. The Penal Code has offences of crimes that threaten parliamentary democracy.
Yet there is no definition of what “parliamentary democracy” is. This means the police have been charging people for an offence that no one knows exactly what it is.
This has led to a situation where things that are actually part and parcel of a parliamentary democracy (at least in my view) have been deemed a threat by the cops.
Such state of affairs also exists in public universities up and down the country. In the students’ disciplinary rules of all public universities, you will probably find the offence of “tarnishing the image of the university” or something similar to that.
What exactly does “tarnishing the image of the university” mean? Well, it would appear to me that it means whatever the university and its disciplinary board want it to mean.
Therefore protesting against corruption has been deemed a “tarnishing” act. How can exercising one’s right to expression, on an issue of national importance, be seen as “tarnishing”?
I don’t know. It is a mystery to me. And in any law or rules, mysteries are not a good thing.
There has to be clarity and certainty as far as possible. This is to ensure that there can be no such thing as an overly broad discretion in the hands of those enforcing these laws and rules. Because when such a broad discretion exists, so does despotism.
And despots come in all shapes and sizes; some carry guns and some wear mortar boards.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Let’s go further than just demos

Brave New World (The Star)
7 December 2016

The plight of the Rohingya is the first big test for the Asean Charter and the Asean Human Rights Declaration.


LAST Sunday there was a big demonstration in Kuala Lumpur. Nothing too weird about that, since nowadays demos are becoming more common in Malaysia.
What was odd was it saw the leader of Umno and PAS sharing the stage and for all the world looking like new BFFs. They were united in expressing their displeasure to the Myanmar government for the horrible treatment of the Rohingya in their country.
Now a lot has been said about this event, on how it is ironic that the leader of a Government, which has on numerous times said that demonstrating is not part of Malaysian culture, would be involved in such a thing.
But I suppose it is perhaps in our culture to protest foreign governments and not our own. Who knows?
Another thing which has been said is how it is a politically motivated event. What can one say? It is organised by Muslim non-governmental organisations backed by politicians, so of course it is politically motivated.
However, all said and done, whatever the motivation of the organisers, however ironic the event may be, the fact remains that Rohingya people are suffering on a terrible scale. What can be done?
In the context of Asean we can see how the presence of a government head at a demo has got the Myanmar government apoplectic. This is because it is simply not done. In Asean, the Asean way of non-interference holds sway.
I think the challenging of the Asean way is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is not enough just to make a big show of opposition to a neighbour’s domestic practices. For real effect, there has to be action both at the regional level as well as the national level.
At the national level, if we are serious about helping the Rohingya, then it is time we sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on Refugees.
We have to include into our legal system the mechanisms necessary to recognise and give legal status to those who are running away from dire and dangerous situations. They must be allowed to work and their children be allowed to go to school.
The Government has the power to take action to recognise Rohingya refugees, even without signing and ratifying the Refugee convention, which may take a long time.
The situation is urgent and, by their action on Sunday, they want to project a sincere concern. That’s nice, but what would be nicer would be some solid action.
At the regional level, Asean has a lot to answer for. This situation did not rise overnight. It has been brewing for years, if not decades. Yet there has been no significant action taken that could have stopped this disaster before it happened.
Well, now it may be deemed too late, but that does not mean nothing needs to be done. At the very least, Asean has to demand free access for a fact-finding mission to determine the scale of the issue and then, following that, serious and concerted effort must be taken to stop any continuation of this humanitarian disaster.
The Asean Charter and the Asean Declaration of Human Rights both state that human rights and peace are aspirations of Asean. This shall be their first big test. Is the organisation willing to stand by their word or will they just act in their usual manner, which will mean such lofty declarations are merely empty promises?
Malaysia, now that our leader has shown such public passion, appears to be serious about doing something to alleviate the Rohingya situation. The proof is in the pudding: what will they do now at the Asean level and would they be willing to act alone, for example by recognising Myanmar refugees and taking firmer diplomatic action? Only time will tell.