“Reclaiming Academic Freedom in Malaysia: The Dawn of A New Era?” by Dr Lai Suat Yan

There was rapturous joy on 10 May 2018 when it was officially announced that the opposition party, namely, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope, PH) won. The rule of the former governing political party, Barisan Nasional (National Front), lasting for the last 60 years, had come to an end. It was remarkable as it was a peaceful transition. Due to the memory of the racial riot that occurred in 1969 after the general elections, there were advisories against celebrating on the streets. Some had stocked up on dried goods as a precautionary measure. Nonetheless, Malaysians were not deterred from voting, joining rallies, attending and supporting fundraisings and events related to the election. Electoral turnout was reported to be high with 82.32 percent voting. I, like the rest of civil society, cast a vigilant eye to see if PH upholds its election manifesto that includes abolishing or amending laws that stifle academic freedom and ending political appointments of top management posts in universities after coming to power. Political appointees are typically beholden to the party that appointed them and may sanction others for being critical of those in power.

From Margin to Centre

The first few months after the historic electoral win, the Malaysian Academic Movement (MOVE or GERAK, its Malay acronym) moved from the margin to the centre in its critical engagement with the state. For me, it felt as if the efforts and struggle have finally paid off. It is a morale booster to be so central to effecting change.

Feeling excited and hopeful, as part of a core group of around 10 academics comprising members from the GERAK Executive Committee and ordinary members, we worked on a ten-point document for reform that was submitted to the Minister of Education in June. The GERAK ten-point document for reforming institutions of higher learning includes restructuring the university administration to overhaul political appointments of top administrative posts from Vice Chancellors to the Board of Directors, abolishing or amending laws that stifle academic freedom, upholding meritocracy and providing a safe and inclusive campus environment. It is a continuation of the two key projects that the GERAK Executive Committee launched in 2017 namely, a) Reclaiming Higher Education Seminar Series; and b) Combating Sexual Harassment on Malaysian Campuses Nationwide Roadshow.

The bubble burst a few months later. While the previous government’s political appointees at the top management level of certain public universities were terminated or chose to resign, the culture of political appointments continued. The only difference is they are from the current governing political party. There seems to be a reluctance to let go of control with the old paternalistic governance model. Furthermore, the entrenched racialism still operates to limit who can be appointed to lead universities as ethnicity comes into play. For example, no non-Malay has been appointed as Vice-Chancellor in public universities in Malaysia and there is no indication of a change in this. There is also an extremely small percentage of women who have been appointed to be Vice-Chancellor and as board of director members of public universities in Malaysia. Nonetheless, at the same time the Ministry has formed a committee to amend the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) that impacts greatly the academic freedom of university students and to a much lesser extent academics. A few GERAK Executive Committee members have been appointed to this committee.

Academic Freedom: Beyond Amending/Abolishing Laws

There is an opening of space since the electoral win of PH based on the platform of reform. Currently, there is a moratorium placed on the Sedition Act that is in the process of being abolished. The Sedition Act reminds me of my involvement in the solidarity campaign for Azmi Sharom, a fellow academic in the legal field who was charged under the Sedition Act for giving his critical legal opinion. During that campaign, we wore our graduation robes to attract the media attention at the court trials. It was time consuming and a labourious process as sometimes the trial could start late or be postponed. Yet, we still had to fulfill our key performance index at work. I am happy that he was acquitted in 2017. Beside the risk of losing one’s job and being jailed when found guilty, the existence of such a law also acts to instill fear and self-censorship.

Nonetheless, for academic freedom to take root, I realize that a deeper cultural change is needed. As the structure governing the academics in public universities in Malaysia is based on the civil service, the prevalent culture is a hierarchical rather than a horizontal one. For example, to go to a conference, there are different layers of permission needed from the immediate head to the Dean and even the Vice-Chancellor for overseas conferences. The requirement to clock in and the attempts to adopt a bio-metric clock in system by a certain time in the morning reflects a well-regulated civil service rather than the free-flowing academic life that does not go by a 9-5 work regime. In addition to abolishing and amending various laws, the dismantling of such hierarchical day to day structures is necessary.

The road ahead is a winding one as change takes time. Political appointments are deep rooted and continue. Similarly, racialism and sexism are still issues of concern as evident by the appointment of leaders in public universities and the insufficient attention given to address sexual harassment in institutions of higher learning in general. Nonetheless, the GERAK 10 ten-point document for reform has provided an opportunity to revisit these issues as has the recent appointment of Tommy Thomas, the first non-Malay attorney general since 1963. The good news is the disciplinary actions taken against students who were fighting to uphold their academic freedom have been rescinded and a committee has been formed with the task of reforming/abolishing the UUCA. Efforts have also been made to abolish and amend laws that curtail the academic freedom of academics, for example, the Sedition Act, Act 605 and the UUCA.  It is a good starting point and GERAK will work towards a holistic change as envisioned in its ten-point document for reforming institutions of higher learning. 


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Dr Lai Suat Yan

Dr Lai Suat Yan is a Senior Lecturer at the Gender Studies Program, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Malaysia. She is currently the Deputy Chairperson of the Malaysian Academic Movement (GERAK) and is spearheading a roadshow to combat sexual harassment in universities nationally.  She is also the Vice-President of the Academic Staff Association of University Malaya (PKAUM), a corporate member of MOVE. She has chaired the investigation of sexual harassment cases or been an expert panel in such investigations at the University of Malaya. She has also campaigned for academic freedom under both GERAK and PKAUM.

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