Monday, December 05, 2005

Is repealing UUCA necessary?

I've been mulling over this issue for some time now. There have been numerous calls for the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) to be repealed. Some have argued that the removal of the UUCA is a necessary step to improve the quality of higher education in Malaysia. I think this argument merits a more in-depth examination.

Firstly, let me make my stance clear. I am passionately for academic freedom (including the right to criticize government and university policies) as well as for student freedom (including the right to mobilize to protest against certain policies and to join political parties). I would group these rights within the larger debate on democracy in Malaysia.

But if one wants to argue that the removal of the UUCA is a necessary step towards improving the quality of higher education in Malaysia, then the same person must face the 800 pound gorilla in the room - the National University of Singapore (NUS). NUS is not one to boast of its long standing commitment to academic or student freedom. I still remember an academic by the name of Christopher Lingle who was teaching at NUS and had to flee the country after writing a op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune alleging practices of nepotism among certain leaders in Singapore. Recently, the University of Warwick voted not to set up a university in Singapore because of the very issue of academic and student freedom.

Yet, NUS acheived a high position in the controversial THES rankings as well as the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings. NTU was not too far behind. Can we square the circle? Can we say that we need academic and student freedom to improve the quality of higher education and give praise to NUS and NTU in the same breath? This is an inconsistency that needs to be pointed out.

One can push the point further by asking if the leading universities in China (like Beijing University) are well known for academic and student freedom.

I would argue for the position that it is possible to improve the quality of higher education in our local varsities without dismantling the repressive impositions of the UUCA. My sense is that there are greater structural problems which drags down the standards at our local varsities. Tony and I have outlined some of these problems before - racialized policies, policies which do incenticive academics to do research, poor funding opportunities, low salaries. If we address these structural problems without touching the UUCA, as NUS has done, I think we've already taken significant steps towards improving the standards in our local Unis.

Foreign academics are attracted to NUS for a variety of reasons - competitive salaries, the prospect of government and private funding opportunities and for the many Malaysians there, a system based on meritocracy. Biologists and geneticists who want to work on stem-cell research won't give two hoots whether they have the right to criticize the policies of the Singapore government nor would they care much about the right of Singapore students to organize and mobilize for political purposes. Most of them care only about their research and the amount of funding they are getting towards that research.

In the longer term, however, Singapore will continue to face the problems illustrated by the University of Warwick affair. Many universities will not have issues with setting up branches or campuses in Singapore because of the excellent infrastructure and government incentives. But some might have issues of the very sort highlighted in the Warwick debate. If Singapore wants to be truly world class and attract world class talent, this is an impediment that they can do without.

Malaysia, however, is very far from what the universities in Singapore have achieved in their relatively short history. If I were to prioritize steps to improve the quality of higher education in Malaysia, I would first address the structural issues mentioned rather than put the UUCA at the forefront of the debate.

To answer my question in the title - I would say yes, it is necessary to repeal the UUCA as part of the larger process of democratic debate in Malaysia. But I would also say that it is not necessary to repeal the UUCA to improve the quality of higher education in our local unis. There are far bigger structural problems that need to be addressed and the UUCA is not one of them.


Tony P said...

Kian Ming's argument is sound. But I'd just like to add a qualifying statement.

Our varsities is plagued by a host of serious problems (no need to list them again here) including freedom of thought and academic debate.

While it is absolutely possible to improve the standards of the universities by miles, without repealing the UUCAs and the Akujanjis, there'll clearly be a limit to how far the university can improve further. While NUS has performed incredibly well to date, they'll probably face a significant challenge to break into the top 10 of the world without loosening up equivalent laws.

Agreeably, these laws do not prevent the top scientists from working in Singapore, but NUS will continue to be challenged in the arts and social sciences fields due to the restrictions and gray areas. And hence, Warwick's rejection.

At the same time, I'd also like to argue that while the UUCA does not disable potential large improvements at our universities due to other major structural issues, it may serve as a inhibitor to improvements in these other areas. The authorities, with powers and rights enshired in regulations such as Akujanji and UUCA, will often be tempted to "abuse" these rights for selfish and vested interests, hence impeding on reforms to the "other issues" (meritocracy, discrimination, standards, promotions, quality etc. etc.). For one reason or another, the "abuse" of the equivalent powers in NUS and NTU is extremely limited or non-existent, hence enabling them to do well despite the strict freedom-limiting regulations.

Hence, my argument will be that while there's technically plenty of room for improvement at our higher education institutions without the need to yet relook at UUCA, the practical terms of our context necessitates that these regulations be reviewed at the same time, together with all these other issues plaguing our universities.

Tony P :)

Rajan R said...

Singapore is the paradox of many things - it is largely a non-democracy yet corruption is very low, 80% of its housing is state-own yet it ranks as the second-freest economy in the world.

Is it possible? Yes. However, I think Malaysia should be looking to be better than Singapore, not just as good. While natural and applied science faculties and student bodies wouldn't miss the academic freedom, the humanities side are severely affected.

Besides, in Singapore, universities are already runned well with little complaints, so there isn't such a pressing need to give students and faculty the right to publicly complain or challenge leadership. In Malaysia, if the minister couldn't be bothered, vice-chancellors incompetent, perhaps it's best if power is put back in the people's hands.

Anonymous said...

When the management of the country is sound, efficient and transparent, and the benefits can be enjoyed all the common people,
what is there to complain ?

In fact, I would say most Malaysians are tolerant to the
public service to an extent...because we know is public services...and supply will never meet demand..

but when there are some absurd practices that waste the time of the common poeple and affect their livelihood...and implement in an adhoc manner..

We will complain when our tolerance level is up!

Anonymous said...

I hold a different view from what the writer has said pertaining to the above issue. IMHO, I think that the UUCA should be scrapped at all cost. With UUCA, the freedom of academics and students are suppressed. Even though we should exert some formality and restrain from making any profane statement, UUCA is no doubt an "overzealous" method that is used by our government to control and brainwash the young minds and lecturers and thus impede critical thinking and conviction to express oneself. For instance, do you want an "always yes man" to be our leader in the future?
Secondly, if UUCA is not repealed, how are we going to point out the institutionalised structural problems like racial policies? Those who are involved would not dare to criticise these problems lest they will be invoking troubles such as 'blacklisted' for promotion or lower grades for student.