Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Death knell for higher education

Brave New World (The Star)
31 october 2012

There is a growing obsession with form over substance and nowhere is this more evident than in the unhealthy interest taken with university rankings.


THIS month marks the 22nd year I have worked as an academic.

In that time, I have seen many changes in the university. There have been, of course, some improvements since those early days.

For one thing, technology has transformed things for the better.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The very first publication I wrote went through this rather painful process.

First, I had to go to the library and find the relevant cases and journal articles. Then having taken copious notes, I went back to my office where I proceeded to write out my thoughts with an ancient device known as a pen.

Having completed this task, I would send my scratching to a lovely lady in the general office downstairs whose job title was “steno”.

She would type out what I wrote, give it back to me to check and then I would return it to her with any corrections. Finally, it would be placed into a pocket made of paper known as a stamped envelope and posted to the publisher.

Now, all cases and statutes including many journals are online. I type my work myself (with the computer checking my spelling and grammar) and when I am done I e-mail the stuff to the publisher.

All in the comfort of my office where I can play Flight of the Hamsters in between constructing sentences filled with gems of wisdom.

I will be the first to admit that I am quite old-fashioned in many ways, but I can categorically say that I don’t miss the days before the Internet and Word.

Progress, unfortunately, is not always positive. And it saddens me to say that over these last two decades I have seen changes that in my opinion ring the death knell for higher education.

In my opinion, the key problem is that those who decide the direction of our universities have lost track of the values that have to underpin these institutions in order for them to play a meaningful role in society.

There is a growing obsession with form over substance and nowhere is this more evident than in the unhealthy interest taken with university rankings.

Politicians harp on about it, so the Government makes it a priority. Because the Government wants higher rankings, the vice-chancellors start ranting about it too.

Rankings have become the raison d’etre for universities.

The quick fix then becomes the holy grail, hence universities look to the ranking criteria and they focus their efforts on doing all they can to meet those criteria.

This blinkered modus operandi then leads to some seriously contorted developments which ignore the principles that are necessary for the proper foundations of truly good universities.

Academic autonomy is one of those principles.

A university is a complex organisation. It is unlike a factory where there is by and large one goal and usually one method with which to achieve the said goal with the best quality and efficiency.

Even in one faculty, there are many variations. Take, for example, the Faculty of Arts – you have departments as diverse as English and Geography; Urban Planning and Gender Studies; International Studies and Indian Studies; the list goes on.

You can’t possibly be laying down a single criterion for quality for such a diverse group. But that is what happened.

Nowadays, if you want to prove your quality, the only way you can do it, which is embraced by universities, is if you publish in the journals recognised by the ranking organisations.

It doesn’t matter if you are an English professor who publishes well-received novels, or if you are a Gender Studies lecturer who uses your knowledge for women’s activism.

What about the fine arts? Shouldn’t the creation of new ideas in dance and theatre take precedence over an article in some obscure (but acknowledged by the rankers) journal which only a handful of people will read?

Increasingly, the thinking of universities is it is our way or the highway.

Such a top down approach cannot work because each academic unit in a university has its own expertise and its own value system.

This has to be respected because they themselves should know how to advance their discipline both in an academically and socially meaningful manner.

Autonomy brings with it the necessary flexibility for each department and each academic to chart the necessary course which will improve themselves and their own disciplines.

And who should know better what that course should be than those who have trained in that discipline.

I am not against the publishing of works in reputable journals. I acknowledge that they are important to the advancement of academic thought.

What I am saying is that the diversity of academia means that there are numerous methods to determine quality. And the best way to achieve quality is by having true academic autonomy so that those who know best are the ones who determine the way to achieve the best.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Building a more just and caring nation

Brave New World (The Star)
17 October 2012

It is important for us to embrace the ideal that all sectors of society must be helped if they need help.


IT has been said many times in this column that as a nation we need to move away from race-based politics and policy-making.

Whenever the issue is raised, however, there will normally follow responses that refer to the inequitable distribution of wealth in the country. The usual argument is that Malays still make up the largest number of poor and thus require affirmative action.

I agree that the largest number of poor households is still largely Malay. This being the case, if we discard ethnic-based policy-making and focus purely on poverty alleviation, the largest group that would be receiving help will still be Malays.

The difference with a colour-blind policy, however, will be two-fold.

Firstly, as a nation that purports to hold civilised values, it is of vital importance for us to embrace the ideal that all sectors of society, regardless of their skin colour, must be helped if they need help.

Secondly, it is unsustainable for us to continue to be governed based on race for there is no way we can grow successfully as a nation if there is a deep and abiding sense of division among us.

As the saying goes, talk is cheap. If one were to take this route, how does one go about it?

Surely the priority should be towards the building of a more equitable society, in terms of income, education, opportunities for development and institutional fairness.

Fortunately, two NGOs have decided to take the bull by the horns and have come up with an interesting suggestion.

Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) have drafted a proposed law called the Social Inclusion Act (SIA).

The SIA does not actually provide immediate answers or quick fixes.

Instead, it proposes a method through which we can develop policies that will be beneficial to Malaysians who are disadvantaged and marginalised.

What it suggests is the creation of a Social Inclusion Commission. This commission will consist of seven people who are knowledgeable and experienced in the issues at hand, i.e. poverty and social marginalisation.

The shortlist is to be drawn up by a bipartisan parliamentary committee. The committee then passes the shortlist to the Prime Minister who then advises the Yang DiPertuan Agong who finally makes the appointments.

In other words, the commissioners will not be appointed on the say-so of one person.

There is also a strict requirement of disclosure in the SIA where commissioners are bound to disclose any interest they, their family members or associates might have with any matter which is related to their work.

This commission is to be responsible to Parliament to whom they will have to report regularly. These reports are also to be made available to the public.

The commission, once established, has the responsibility to address issues of poverty reduction, income inequality, institutional discrimination, capacity building for marginalised and vulnerable communities, and the provision of social safety nets.

They are to then draft policies to deal with these issues and governmental plans of action are to be made in line with these policies.

There is a close link between the commission and Parliament, with the commission having the responsibility not only to report to the House but to also take all necessary steps to involve MPs in the development and implementation of their plans.

To me, this proposed law is attractive for many reasons.

Firstly and most crucially, it is concerned with the most vulnerable and needful sectors of the Malaysian community.

Secondly, it provides for a transparent modus operandi.

Thirdly, its work is closely intertwined with Parliament, thus respecting the democratic system.

And finally, it functions on the premise that concerted research has to be done in formulating policies.

Naturally, there is much work to be done to refine the SIA.

However, it is a bold first step forward for the country and it ought to be taken seriously by anyone who is serious about creating a nation which is more just, inclusive and caring.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Can bully boy tactics win?

Going The Distance (Selangor Times)
12 October 2012


Oh what a glorious night! Twenty-three years of humiliation, with nothing but self-deprecating humour to comfort oneself, finally laid to rest on that one glorious night.

I am talking of course about last Sunday (Sept 30) when Tottenham Hotspur finally defeated Manchester United in a League game at Old Trafford.

Needless to say, being a Spurs man for over 30 years, I am experienced enough to know these moments can soon be overshadowed by an awful performance against some “smaller” team.

However, for the moment, allow me to crow! After all, we had to endure so much. For example, Pedro Mendes’ almost winning goal against them which was disallowed as having not crossed the line in 2005; even though it was at least a metre in the goal. Or the time we led by two at half-time, only for them to put in five after the break.

How the unwashed hordes in red taunted us. Even last Sunday, they thought that history was going to repeat itself.

Two-nil up and I was receiving texts telling me to brace myself for there will be another astounding comeback. And they almost did. They battered us black and blue in the second half but we held on.

The place I was watching the game (a Spurs haunt) was filled with grown men in lily white cowering behind walls and chewing fingernails bloody, as we counted the seconds. But the elation at the final whistle; oh the joy as “Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspurs” (a song they stole from us incidentally) rang around the place… unforgettable!

After the chanting and dancing ended and I was driving home alone, I wondered if such an unlikely victory can occur against the ruling party in the next general election.

After all, the similarities between Manchester United and the BN are numerous.

They are both used to winning to the point that they feel it is their god given right. Referees are always thought to be on their side.

On the rare occasion that they do lose it is everybody’s fault except their own. The press is cowed by them….the list goes on.

Of course I am being facetious; who knows what’s going to happen at GE13?

However, the constant speculation of the past year is positively irritating.

Why we can’t simply have a set election time is beyond me. Then we won’t have ridiculous scenes where the Opposition are pointing out what is clearly an election budget as being an election budget and the government vehemently disputing something which is as obvious as Khir Toyo’s makeover.

So, with the budget being what it is, elections are surely just around the corner right? Perhaps, but if they are, then why is the government doing so many silly things?

Attacking Suaram for a few supposed accounting oddities looks very much like selective prosecution. Having a mega feast for a chief minster’s son during a time when people are expected to be frugal and careful seems a bit rich and cocky. Going on a witch hunt against NGOs based on some laughable excuse that they are insidious foreign agents sounds like desperation to me. And harassing Bersih leaders at immigration looks like good old-fashioned malice.

All these things (and this is within a space of a couple of weeks) does not make any sense to me.

Do those in power actually believe this is going to help them? Hardcore BN supporters will vote for them regardless and the converse will go for those who are staunchly opposition.

But do they honestly think that the fence sitters are going to be wooed by these bully boy tactics and wildly flimsy accusations?

It is all beyond me and in a way I am thankful that I can’t put myself in their heads.

Obviously what goes on in there is just too strange for me to comprehend.

It is better to just sit back and watch what will happen; rather like watching Alex Ferguson putting on an aged team against a young squad with wings on their heels.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Minister must be there for Question Time

Brave New World (The Star)
3 October 2012

Although not compelled by law, a Cabinet minister should turn up during parliamentary debate over matters that concern his or her job.


OVER the last two weeks, I attended a couple of forums: one was a discussion organised by a private university on the topic of civil liberties in Malaysia, and the other was the launch of a book written by Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi titled Why Listen to Your Vice-Chancellor.

At the former, a Cabinet minister was the main speaker and a fellow academic and myself were to provide responses for his speech.

Unfortunately, he had to leave for another engagement before our turn came, so he did not hear what we had to say.

I did not begrudge him this though because, firstly, he was apologetic and polite and, secondly, it was way past office hours and even ministers deserve their own time.

At the other event, it was my turn to play runaway. The function was launched by a chief minister but I had to scoot because I had a class to teach and so did not hear his talk.

Once again, the host and other speakers were gracious and understanding.

Sometimes, we can’t turn up for events and even when we can we have to run off early. Nothing wrong with that, especially if the event is something voluntary and not part of your job or responsibility.

However, there are occasions when one must be there. An example would be meetings between management and unions. There is no point in having these types of meetings if the boss does not attend and instead sends his underling who can’t make a decision and may not even be fully aware of the issues at hand.

Another example is the presence of the Finance Minister at the parliamentary debate over the national budget. There is no law that compels him or her to turn up, but for a matter as fundamental to your job as this there is no excuse not to be fully available throughout the debates.

To do anything less is to do a disservice to the foundations of our system of governance and that is the parliamentary system.

Parliament is not only a place where laws are made, it is also a place where debates occur and questions are asked. The reason for this is not just to give our MPs something to do but it is for the sake of transparency, a vital component to a democracy.

Now, I know nuts about economics and fiscal policies, and I would rather watch paint dry than watch a parliamentary debate on such issues, but there are those who do know and would be able to offer a rational analysis of such a debate.

Therefore, parliamentary openness is a necessary mechanism for public accountability and check and balance.

In this light, I hope that whoever is in power in the future that they try to ensure certain practices be put in place in our Parliament.

It is not just the Budget speech where it is important to have the minister in charge available – it is more far reaching than that. It should be the norm that whoever is in charge of a portfolio be available for cross-examination.

And what about the head honcho himself? The Westminster exercise of having one session specifically for Prime Minister’s Question Time is something that ought to be emulated here.

Prime Minister’s Question Time (in Britain is for half an hour every Wednesday) allows people to see and hear for themselves the issues that their elected officials think are important and to see how the premier reacts.

And think about it, such a thing as PM’s Question Time is something that can be of use to all parties. An opposition with idiotic questions can help the ruling party.

And a Prime Minister who can intelligently respond to questions can only do his or her reputation a world of good. Of course the converse is true.

Like so many things in our country, we have the institutions in place but there is a consistent misunderstanding of the spirit of these institutions. Such an understanding is what distinguishes foetal democracies from mature ones.

> (Errata: In my last article I said that the US launched a missile attack on Baghdad as a response to a threat of George Bush’s life in 1998. The actual year for that particular incident was 1993. Apologies.)