Thursday, September 27, 2007

An open letter to Mustapa Mohamed, Minister of Higher Education, Malaysia.

Dear Sir,

Firstly, allow me to congratulate you on your new posting. It must be said though that you are not to be envied, for you are now faced with a Herculean task.

But, where are my manners? You have no idea who I am. I could be a complete nutcase.

Well, I’m an academic in a Malaysian public university. Which some people might consider a nutcase, anyway. But I’m very proud to be an academic.

It’s a noble profession, and it matters not that my students earn more than me within a few years of graduating and that little children run screaming from my hideously outdated clothes. It’s a calling to be an academic, and I care passionately about it.

That is why I’m writing to you. You see, there is much that is wrong with our universities and much that can be done by the Ministry to put things right.

You may not believe that my one purpose in writing to you is the improvement of our institutions, but let me assure you, we true academics (as opposed to wannabe politicians in lecturers’ clothes) don’t have hidden agendas.

Over the past few years, there has been this mantra chanted by the Government and university leaders: “We want our universities to be world-class universities.” Unfortunately, this mantra does not have any explanatory notes, so we don’t really know what “world-class” means. However, let us assume that a world-class university has the following:

Graduates who are employable, not only here but also abroad;

Academic staff who are respected worldwide;

Research and publications that are recognised by reputable international journals/publishers;

An academic programme that is recognised worldwide;

An academic atmosphere that can attract quality national and foreign students and staff.
If we accept these criteria as valid, what then can be done to achieve it?

Universities are not hampers

Universities are not rewards to be handed out. It has happened in Terengganu and the same has been promised to Kelantan. “Vote for us and we will give you a university.”

This may make political sense, but it does not make any academic sense. A lot of planning is needed to ensure that the resources are sufficient to create a university of quality.

Malaysia is not a very rich country – we can’t afford petrol subsidies, for goodness’ sake – and we definitely can’t afford to stretch our limited economic and intellectual resources to build universities in such a blasé manner.

Universities are not fast-food joints

They should instead be high-class restaurants. Universities have to be elitist in order to produce quality research and graduates.

An elitist university means that only the best candidates are taken in as students and only the best staff are hired. Classes and exams can then be pitched at a higher standard.

Furthermore, the resulting smaller student numbers mean seminars and tutorials can be truly conducive to discussions, and lecturers will have less of a teaching burden in order to concentrate on research.

This is not to say that higher education as a whole must be elitist. There are other forms of higher education institutions that can cater to school leavers who don’t make the cut, such as polytechnics and community colleges.

If you love your universities, you must set them free

Academics and students must be free to think and to express themselves.

Yes, I understand that this is Malaysia and freedom is seen as a dirty word by some, but without it, there is little hope of achieving “world-class” universities.

Intellectualism cannot grow in a repressive atmosphere.

We all know that in this country, there are many laws that restrict our freedom to express ourselves, but the irony is that for lecturers and students there are additional laws levelled at them.

You must be aware of the University and University Colleges Act – that wonderful piece of legislation designed to ensure that university students are little more than secondary school pupils.

You may not be aware, however, of the Statutory Bodies Discipline and Surcharge Act which affects academics who are the employees of statutory bodies.

According to this law, we can’t say anything for or against government policy without getting ministerial permission first.

Now, this may be all right for a mathematician quietly thinking up new formulae with which to calculate the possibility of Malaysia ever qualifying for the World Cup.

But for social scientists, it is akin to having the Malaysian football team play football without using their feet (which is perhaps something that they do anyway, looking at previous results).

The simple fact of the matter is that universities should first and foremost be the birthplace of ideas and original thought, discussion and debate, and this can’t be achieved with such laws hung around our necks.

And in case you’re worried that greater freedom will make our campuses hotbeds of radicalism, please let me put your fears to rest.

The number of students in this day and age who really care about matters beyond Akademi Fantasia is very small indeed.

Most students just want to graduate and as quickly as possible get into debt to pay for their three-bedroom flat and Proton Waja.

Universities need Mandelas

If there is one thing that Malaysian universities need, it is good leadership. And by a good leader, I mean a Vice-Chancellor who has the qualities of an outstanding intellectual, manager and diplomat, who can ensure that academic principles are paramount, not political expediency.

That promotions are given based on merit, not patronage. That students are treated like adults, not children. And finally, that the university is run on the highest ideals of civilisation and intellectualism, not self-aggrandisement and base toadying.

An outstanding academic leader, someone who can efficiently organise the place, represent the institution with dignity and command the respect of those working under him, or her, is a rare creature indeed.

To seek out such a person, may I suggest that the search committee your predecessor was talking about be made a reality.

This search committee, however, must be independent and transparent. It must not be hiHndered by any political agenda and must instead pick the candidates based on ability – and ability alone. Factors such as race, creed, gender and nationality should not be a consideration.

Perhaps we’d like to take lessons from elsewhere. Oh, before you think I’m suggesting a “study trip” abroad (with the usual sightseeing and cultural diversions), let me make it clear that I think the taxpayers’ money need not be wasted in such a fashion. After all, writing an e-mail is probably all you need to do to get the necessary information.

You may wish to start with New Zealand universities. I say New Zealand because the VC of Auckland University was recently poached by Oxford to be its Vice-Chancellor. The first non-English VC of Oxford since, well, since forever.

Now, that’s world-class, don’t you think? And from a country much smaller than us where the sheep outnumber the humans. Amazing.Well then, Sir, I think I’d best sign off now. You must have loads to do. Oh, before I forget, if you want to lighten the workload of your officers, may I make a last suggestion?

Why don’t you just leave the day-to-day running of the universities in the hands of the universities? I bet the Ministry has enough on its plate without having to decide about trivial things like professorial promotions and the approving of leave for academics to go to conferences and holidays overseas.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read my letter. Good luck with your endeavours. Until next time, I remain,

Yours sincerely,

Dr Azmi Sharom is an associate professor of the Law Faculty of Universiti Malaya and has been spotted joining the 'Walk for Justice' in Putrajaya on Sept 26, 2007. His interview with Malaysiakini can be viewed at (drenched in rain)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Perdana Leadership Foundation (PLF) Essay

Theme: Nurturing the minds of Future Leaders

Title: Five lessons we can learn from the history of Malaysia, from Merdeka to the present day.


Former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, when he was the 4th Prime Minister, has been stressing that our country has been colonised by foreign powers for more than 500 years during his yearly Merdeka eve speeches. There is an important significance in the fact of colonisation for such a long period. According to a prolific historian, George Santayana, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”. This statement holds true and history remains our best teacher at all times, the past, the present, the future. History is often being ridiculed as unimportant and a total waste of time based on a saying “forget the past, cherish the present and face the future.” According to Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr Khoo Kay Kim in the NTV7 breakfast show interview to promote this essay competition, an economist once said that historians are people who drive cars forward but keep looking at the rear mirror. He reciprocated by saying that economists are people who drive cars forward with their dim light shining into the darkness of uncertainty. Indeed, history is as important as economy is, if not more. While we do not always look at the rear mirror all the time, we certainly do not travel in darkness all the time. However, before overtaking a vehicle in ‘front’ of us on a highway, we certainly need to look at the ‘rear’ mirror, don’t we?

Lesson number 1: National interest must be placed above self-interest

We must stress the importance of remembering our forefathers of independence and their invaluable, priceless contributions. Dato’ Onn Jaafar laid the foundations against Malayan Union by establishing UMNO. Subsequently, Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed independence for Malaya in 1957. Soon after, Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963. The Alliance Party (UMNO-MCA-MIC) managed to negotiate for independence from the British government. This is a classic example of putting nation first. UMNO could have continued championing Malay rights; MCA could have just continued to be business-based. But this did not happen. Instead, the three main races came together for one common goal – freedom and having our own democracy, our own rule of law as enshrined in the constitution today. Modern context refers to transparency and accountability. Leaders should not misuse or abuse the power and mandate given to them by the voters. Leaders must not be selfish and arrogant. Credit must be given where it is due. Greed is evil. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Simple as it sounds, yet there are so many greedy politicians in the world today. World history has taught us many valuable lessons. The ‘people power’ in the Philippines, ‘reformasi rakyat’ in Indonesia and recently the military coup in Thailand have shown us the fate of leaders who are not interested in serving the people’s interests. The moral of the story is that we require clean, honest, transparent and accountable leaders.

Lesson number 2: Nation-building’s essential ingredients – unity and tolerance

Unity is the key to Malaysia’s success in the developing world. Malaysia is unique in the sense that she is multicultural, multiethnic and multi religious. Differences in opinions and ways of life do not hinder Malaysians from mingling with one another. Tolerance emerged in the hearts and minds of the people. If every race starts to demand for this and that, the government would not be able to cater to the needs of a particular race. Unity and tolerance is no doubt very crucial to be maintained at all times. History has taught us an important lesson about racial riots. Riots and chaos are not only detrimental to our peace and security, but also disrupt the economy. One thing leads to another. When people fight, nobody works, productivity decreases causing economic sluggishness. Everything comes to a slowdown, if not standstill. Leaders should not campaign and propagate along racial lines which will conspicuously precipitate anger among their followers. Instead, they should regard themselves as working towards a ‘bangsa Malaysia’ or a Malaysian race. A good, tightly-knitted fabric protects the person who wears it. The same thing applies in the concept of unity. Thankfully, there is no prejudice or stereotype towards other Malaysians of different ethnicity. For instance, a Malaysian of Chinese ethnicity can be walking alone in a village occupied by Malaysians of Malay ethnicity without any sense of fear or insecurity. Likewise, a lonely banana fritters seller of Malay ethnicity can open a stall right in the heart of a village occupied by Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity. Notice that I refrain from using the terms ‘Chinese Malaysians’ and ‘Malay Malaysians’.

Lesson number 3: Co-operation and understanding vital to maintaining harmony

Co-operation and understanding lead to the formation of the National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN in short) – the party which has ruled Malaysia since independence. A strong coalition of multiracial parties was formed by Tun Abdul Razak to further promote unity and tolerance after the horrible 1969 riots. Discussion and fanning of ‘sensitive issues’ are prohibited. The concept of coercion-cum-persuasion is being applied after 1969 with the establishment of the National Consultative Council and the National Operation Council. Everything is placed in order and the rights of each race are discussed and agreed in consensus. Sometimes, the decision based on consensus seemed to be better than a decision derived through voting. Voting can cause a slim, simple majority which can lead to disharmony. Though some may argue that there is no absolute consensus due to differences in opinions and principles, this has been the way BN works and the citizens have been putting them in power ever since independence so we can conclude that this concept is what the people wanted. Reaching an agreement through consensus is vital. It highlights the fact that there is a significant level of co-operation and understanding among the parties in BN. Consistent with its impartial weighing scale symbol, BN aims to achieve social justice and economic imbalances. With reference to lesson number two, the Rukunegara was introduced to instill a sense of unity and nationhood among the various ethnic groups. This national ideology is perceived as a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy of the overall affirmative action policy which will be discussed in lesson number four.

Lesson number 4: Social and economic mobility – the way forward

The fourth lesson is actually a continuation of the third lesson but I feel it requires in-depth discourse thus the partition. In order to focus on socioeconomic progress, the government formulated policies which help the marginalised, especially the poor Malays in order to achieve a better balance of income disparity among the Malays and Chinese. The New Economic Policy (NEP) and ‘Rancangan Buku Merah’ plan were launched to assist villages in rural areas to gain social mobility and economic dynamicity. In the pipeline was the mobilisation of natural resources such as palm oil, rubber, natural oil and gas. Exports are increased and the country experienced a strong economic growth. Without such policies to help the marginalised, there is no way Malaysia can move forward. One of the criteria of a developed nation is having a reasonably high per capita income for each working citizen. Thus, without the implementation of the NEP, Vision 2020 which is going to be discussed in the fifth lesson is far from reality. The wealth of the national economy should be enjoyed by all races in Malaysia. In short, if we expand the economic cake, everybody gets a bigger share, rather than ‘robbing’ from the rich to give the poor (Robin Hood concept). The Second Malaysia Plan, 1971-1975 categorically stated: “The NEP is based upon a rapidly expanding economy which offers increasing opportunities for all Malaysians, and the government will ensure that no particular group will experience any loss or feel any sense of deprivation.”

Lesson number 5: The leadership factor – innovation, imagination, insight toward Vision 2020

Intelligent and charismatic leaders are required to develop Malaysia. The 1st and 2nd Prime Ministers were lawyers who speak well. Although not much is documented about Tun Hussein Onn, who was also a lawyer himself, the title of Bapa Perpaduan Malaysia which was given to him speaks much of his charisma in maintaining unity among Malaysians. Later, the 4th Prime Minister, a medical doctor by profession, introduced many policies which revolutionized Malaysia for the past 20 years. Dr Mahathir introduced the Look East Policy which is clearly beneficial to our work ethics. In 1991, he introduced Vision 2020. For the past few months, intensive criticisms of current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi seemed to raise some doubts about whether or not Vision 2020 can be achieved. A good leader should be innovative and imaginative. In order words, creative and critical thinking is required. A weak leader who allows oneself to be manipulated by unscrupulous advisers and cronies will only lead to the downfall of the government. What happened in Indonesia and the Philippines are good examples which should be studied seriously. Therefore, we need to inculcate a strong sense of patriotism among the young and future generations because they are the ones who will be taking over the helm of the country one day. With regards to the theme of the essay, future leaders of our beloved Malaysia who show intellectual charisma should be nurtured and moulded into true leaders who will bring Malaysia to greater heights. All in all, Malaysia needs leaders with ‘first world mentality’ to achieve the nine challenges of Vision 2020.


Malaysia is a country blessed with its abundance of natural resources and lovely people. Yet today we are witnessing the possibility of racial tensions after nearly 40 years since the dark episode. If every Malaysian citizen never forgets the five aforementioned lessons, Malaysia is indeed a haven of ‘excellence, glory and distinction’ on earth, as ideal as she can be, while still maintaining the Asian and traditional culture in the face of globalisation and internationalisation. In the end of the day, it is still the interest for history that matters. People should be encouraged to study not only Malaysian, but global history, which includes civilisations, cultures and religions. Only then can we truly understand and appreciate one another. The root cause of this problem has always been the education system in Malaysia. School text books tend to be written in a politicised manner. Elaboration of cultures and religions should be highlighted instead of ‘politics’. When one studies the true meaning of history, one can then enlighten one’s mind. I end this essay with a quotation by Herodotus, the father of history, who reasoned out why he wrote ‘The Histories’: Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his enquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.

(1841 words)

Written by Melvin Chin for the PLF Public Outreach Programme Essay Compeition. This essay won the fourth prize. Prize giving ceremony to be held on 19 Sept 2007. The writer would like to congratulate the other winners and thank PLF for the prize.