Academic freedom is the ultimate goal

The UUCA (Amendment) Bill 2018 was tabled in the Dewan Rakyat on December 4 by the Ministry of Education to allow students of higher education to participate in political activities on campus.

Apart from Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), the amendments also involve the Private Higher Education Institutions Act and the Education Institutions (Discipline) Act.

DAPSY Deputy Chief Chiong Yoke Kong commended the government’s effort of tabling amendments, saying that this would be the first significant step towards returning students’ freedom and autonomy in participating in politics as it opens up the space for students from both public and private universities and colleges.

Ever since UUCA was enacted in 1971 and amended in 1975, students’ freedom of association and expression are severely restricted by laws, resulting in near elimination of student movement in Malaysia that was very active in the 1960s.

Since then, whenever students attempted to speak up, form associations or participate in politics of their own will, it is almost certain that they will be deterred, stopped or suppressed by the government or their respective university. Meanwhile, the freedom to teach and research of which lecturers who are the top scholars in our country should enjoy, were also severely trampled on. This was apparently to satisfy the political aims of the then Barisan Nasional government, namely to suppress dissidents and cover up facts.

One of the significant factors of BN’s downfall is therefore due to the fact that varsity students and researchers were extremely dissatisfied with how BN suppressed their freedom and space of speech. It was their dissatisfaction that transformed to significant votes and successfully ousted BN from its seemingly unbreakable throne.

Besides that, many varsities tended to utilize their power in allocating budget and funds for research to “standardize” research topics, resulting in deprivation of students’ freedom to seek truths as well as demoralization among researchers. As a result, some chose to work behind closed doors, whereas others looked for better job opportunities, thus contributing to brain drain of our excellent scholars.

Due to political sensitivity and self-monitoring, the researches produced by our academia are generally not in synced with the real needs of our society. Many key political and economic issues as well as public policies, such as national transformation and strategies, GST and minimum wage, just to name a few, were rarely selected by our local universities and research institutes to research on and study empirically. Unfortunately, discussions on these key issues that would immensely chart the course of our nation’s future for years and decades often became war of words.

Although the reform proposed by the Ministry of Education is important, the new government must not be satisfied with this initial step but has to be committed to gradually achieving the ultimate goal of abolishing UUCA as well as reforming other areas in higher education sector.

For instance, “The ministry should focus on reviving the spirits of campus democracy, academic freedom and student autonomy. The reforms should include empowering academics to lead and govern varsities, reducing bureaucracy, eliminating political appointments, reviving Student Union that enjoys substantial autonomy, and empowering student organizations.”

Therefore, in order to realize the spirit of campus autonomy and academic freedom, the ministry must implement bold and decisive reforms in order to provide institutional protections to varsities and to create a free and safe academic environment. Only by doing so, we can ensure that researchers and varsity students will not once again face white terror, which had been deterring them for decades from publishing, discussing or researching on various topics and fields.

21st century is the era of globalization whereby boundaries of nations are diminishing and new technologies are overturning the traditional rules in every field. Higher education should therefore nurture talents who are visionary, concerned about social welfare, as well as equipped with the ability to solve problems by utilizing interdisciplinary and multi-faceted solutions.

It is only through implementing substantial reforms in higher education sector that our local universities can nurture talents, improve the quality of teaching and research, elevate the quality of both basic and applied research, as well as also connect with the society and enterprises as a whole.

All these features will ultimately indicate that the investments that we have been pouring into higher education sector provide high return, and that the competitiveness of our nation is successfully elevated.

Chiong Yoke Kong
Media statement by Chiong Yoke Kong in Cameron Highlands on Thursday, 6th December 2018