Thursday, 10 July 2014

Political Interference in Academia

Sin Chew Jit Poh
5 July 2014


In late June Professor Redzuan Othman resigned as Head of the University Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMcedel) and according to former Deputy Minister for Higher Education Saifuddin Abdullah, this was due to pressure from the government.
So far there is no hard evidence of this fact, for example a letter from the Ministry of Education to the Vice Chancellor of UM with instructions to fire Professor Redzuan. However, I see no reason to not believe what Saifuddin has claimed. If what he said is true, then what we have here is a very clear case of the government interfering in university matters.
The reason for this is because apparently they are unhappy with some of the findings of UMcedel, namely those which show that most Malaysians in the last general elections were happier with the Pakatan Rakyat manifesto and that most were in favour of Anwar Ibrahim being Prime Minister. As it turned out the results of the elections seem to validate the findings of the UMcedel because the popular vote was very much in Pakatan’s favour.
Be that as it may, this incident raises several issues. Firstly, if there was an order from the government that Professor Redzuan steps down then this is clearly an attack on academic freedom. Academics must be allowed to do their work (teaching and research) without any fear of interference from outside forces, no matter who they might be.
The reason for this is so that the work will not be tainted by any interested party and remains as impartial as possible. Once people suspect government of interfering in academic affairs then the credibility of the organisation will suffer.
I worry very much for UMcedel because no matter what they do from now on, there will be the suspicion that they are not independent because the perception will be that the government can control them. This is such a shame for the academics who work in this centre. For through no fault of their own, they now face an uphill task at convincing the public at large that their work is sound.
The government must understand also that an independent academia is necessary and beneficial for the whole country. Impartial and academically sound research findings are of much more value than any research done with a particular agenda. Research done with good methodology and ethical standards will bring us closer to the truth and this is good for everyone.
Even if the truth hurts; for example like when UMcedel stated that the public seemed to be in favour of Pakatan, then what the government should have done is to take that research finding and try to improve matters. Disputing the finding is akin to an ostrich hiding its head in the sand and such denial will achieve nothing.
This government keeps talking about university rankings and how it wants Malaysian universities to be world class. Yet it does not appear to be able to grasp the simple concept that world class universities need to operate within certain conditions and those are primarily academic freedom and autonomy. Interfering in university matters undermines both these principles and unless and until they stop doing it and also actively protect academic independence and autonomy, then its best to not talk about world class universities because obviously they don’t understand what that term means.

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