Call for Royal Commission of Inquiry to end protracted higher education crisis and to rebrand Malaysia as a truly international centre of academic excellence competitive with Singapore and Australia in the region

Speech at the Parliamentary Roundtable Dialogue

by Lim Kit Siang

(Committee Room 2, Parliament, Friday): This parliamentary roundtable has been convened to address the protracted and worsening higher education crisis in Malaysia recently highlighted by the controversies involving the University of Malaya over  Dr. Terence Gomez’ prestigious research appointment to   the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva and the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) over the tenure of its Vice Chancellor, Prof. Dr. Mohamad Zohadie Bardaie.

Recently, I asked a local academic about the state of higher education in Malaysia, and this is his response:


      1. Overall Mood

There is much frustration within the academic community about falling standards, declining professionalism, poor remuneration especially for younger academics, political interference, etc.


2. Leadership

Unlike in Thailand and the Philippines where the academic staff (apart from the ministry) gets to nominate their VCs/chancellors, we have no say whatsoever. Instead people who are well connected politically become VCs/DVCs/Deans. The process of selection should be made transparent. The minimum should be that they are internationally respected scholars so that they can command the confidence of the academic staff. We need people of the stature of Ungku Aziz, Hamzah Sendut again. At this point, the VCs only have the confidence of the ministry.

3. Political Interference

If Malaysian universities are to be able to compete internationally, not only should the VCs be serious academics, but other positions should also be filled by academics of the highest quality. All forms of political interference should be gotten rid of. The recent episode concerning the UPM VC is a case in point. Much much more autonomy must be given to the universities. Wherefore, otherwise, the creativity and originality that universities are to provide in any society? At this point they function more like glorified three-year-long national service camps and produce “yes” men and women.

4. Academic Excellence

Promotions should be made transparent, peer-reviewed and awarded to internationally-respected scholar/researchers. (There has been some measure of progress on this score in a few universities. Different areas have been identified and points awarded for this and that.) But too much emphasis is still being given for promotion on the basis of 'administration' (for example, deanship - deans are not appointed on the basis of academic achievement). It ends up with the blind leading the blind.

The internationally-recognised measure of excellence is also publishing in the top journals, not winning medals in exhibitions which has become the fetish with Malaysian universities. No world-class university prides itself on that basis.

If excellence becomes the criteria, then it will allow for the KJ Ratnams and Yip Yat Hoongs (perhaps even people like Jomo and Chandra) to rise up the ranks as well, and in so doing allow for a greater measure of multi-ethnic representation in the higher echelons.


To  further academic excellence, competition among the universities should be encouraged. Allow for 2-3 Malaysian universities to excel rather than level all of them down. The immediate goal is to ensure that we can compete with the likes of National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Seoul National University/Yonsei/Sogang, Kyoto/Tokyo/Keio, HKU/City UniHK/CUHK, Indian Institutes of Technology and Australian universities (many younger than Malaysian ones).

5. Remuneration

To further excellence, the best brains must be attracted to the universities.We are no longer recruiting the top students as before. Apart from enhancing promotion prospects on the basis of merit/scholarship and making that process transparent, there is an urgent need to make the pay scheme more attractive.

Twenty years ago, university lecturers earned salaries which were competitive with the other professions. There was also deep respect for those who opted for a life of research and scholarship. Today that respect has vanished. Starting salaries for those with PhDs (obtained perhaps fiveyears after the basic degree) are about RM3,000 (RM2000 basic, RM150 civil service allowance and RM700 housing). This is no fast track. Many, instead, are attracted to the business, IT, computer sectors apart from the

This problem is getting very acute with the retirement of the older lecturers who aspired to be world class, and the new crop of lecturers who, in the first instance, were not such good students while undergraduates.

6. Students

Promoting the democratization is a good thing. Hence there has been a proliferation of universities and colleges. It's alright to lower standards to ensure ethnic quotas, etc. But once these students come in, the highest and most stringent standards should be enforced before they are allowed to graduate.

Under Najib, the four-year system was changed to a three-year system despite the protests of educators. It has proven to be a disaster with so many graduates unable to find employment.

Apart from restoring the four-year system (which the government is planning to bring back), they should ensure that graduates are IT-savvy, speak and write English well (acquiring a certain standard of English should be made compulsory not least because we operate in a global environment), allow students time to mature via classes as well as extracurricular activities. Students should also be allowed greater freedom to conduct these extracurricular activities which in fact are now closely monitored and organised for them by the office of the DVC Student Affairs. How, therefore, to mature and gain confidence?

7. Private Universities


The emergence of private universities/colleges poses a related problem.With money-making the end goal for many of them, most of their staff do not have PhDs (so they are cheaper to employ), they teach ridiculously long hours and have no time for research, and are used to teach courses in areas for which they have little training and expertise. Attempts to set up an academic staff union have been stymied and the activists concerned harassed.


These seven points probably  can serve as  a good opener for this roundtable dialogue on the deplorable state of higher education in Malaysia, which has been catapulted to the centre of the  national radar screen by the Terence Gomez and Mohamad Zohadie affairs.

It is clear that there is an urgent need for a  Royal Commission of Inquiry to end the protracted higher education crisis and to rebrand Malaysia as a truly international centre of academic excellence competitive with Singapore and Australia in the region



*  Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman