Whilst the issue itself isn't directly related to education, there are some serious underlying implications to our academia arising from the controversy. I thought that they are certainly worth some analysis and commentary here, beyond just our statement of support for Prof Lim blogged here earlier.
For those interested in finding out more about Prof Lim, I would strongly encourage you to read the full interview published in last Tuesday's copy of the Sun's Conversations column. It's an extended piece and is now available online here. I must also give praise to the Sun's editorial board for playing a part in first highlighting the forum in which the study was publicly discussed for the first time, as well as giving the issue the room it deserves in the public space for mature and rational discussion. It should be noted that other English dailies, The Star in particular, has avoided the issue like plague demonstrating its ownership and partisan bias.
OK, back to the core education issues raised by the entire controversy.
Firstly, as blogged frequently here, the type of irrational and emotional response by some of our government leaders to the assertions of the study proves the failure of our education system, particularly in our pre-tertiary schooling programme in promoting national unity. As argued by Prof Lim:
The longer the country delays the reform of our educational system to enable our young to interact directly and build friendships cutting across race, the more the nation is laying down the seeds of polarisation and social breakdown. In this connection, we applaud the recent move by the Ministry of Education to improve the standard of mother tongue education in national schools as this will help encourage a more balanced student intake. Much more needs to be done.It is obvious from the type of responses received by senior government leaders, particularly those from UMNO and the deafening silence from the non-Malay component parties (with the exception of retiring Dr Lim Keng Yaik and Dr Toh Kin Woon of Gerakan), we are faced with some serious polarisation in the country, which if left unchecked, can only lead to social breakdown.
I agree with Prof Lim's call to seek "reforms in national and national-type primary schools to ensure they reflect our cultural and racial diversity."
Secondly, and possibly more immediately urgent, the controversy demonstrates, contrary to the Government's official position, the lack of tolerance for academic integrity and independence.
Prof Abdul Rahman Embong, a sociologist and researcher, is principle fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) at University Kebangsaan Malaysia was interviewed by Malaysiakini for his views. He is also the president of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM).
Prof Abdul Rahman was asked if he thought "academics now are going to ‘self-censor’ their reports and studies that have political ramifications?" His reply was probably as politically correct as it could be in criticising the Government's approach to the academic study without being overtly seen to be doing so.
Malaysia wants to move forward, and Malaysian universities want to be on the international radar screen. For that purpose, four Malaysian universities have been identified to be research universities. To achieve this, among others, we need to strengthen our research culture, promote good quality research, and uphold a conducive environment for freedom of enquiry.Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim of Universiti Malaya, was however, not as kind in his remarks on the episode. He warned that if the matter were to be left unresolved, it would result in increased difficulty for academicians to conduct their studies.
I think researchers have to be ethical and truthful to their vocation by presenting the findings as they have been discovered. We will be doing a disservice to the profession and to the nation if we don’t do that.
Whether a researcher will self-censor or not as a result of the present Asli episode is a matter of personal choice. But a conducive environment for serious enquiry needs to be promoted and protected if we want good quality research that is useful for the universities,the government and the country.
“It has become very difficult for people to carry out research as they are not able to obtain formation or source materials. It results in a lukewarm approach to any research project carried out in the country. They are not able to discuss the subject meaningfully. They can only discuss it through the political prism, which is not good.Interestingly, just as former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore triggered public anger with his uncouth remarks as a guest of the country back in the late 1990s which resulted in a spate of public advertisements placed by prominent individuals, this episode has done just the same. Advertisements has been placed in the local vernacular press (the Star has purportedly rejected the advertisement) by concerned distinguished members of the academia and the public.
For example, if you beget the question to students, ‘Why is foreign direct investment (FDI) not coming our way?' they are not able to follow because they have no information to build their own opinions on.”
Khoo added that there is a tendency for pertinent economic issues to be racialised.
“That is the problem with this country. Very often, when we have a problem, it becomes a racial issue. And then you cannot proceed from there, you cannot further discuss it, because it already sensitive.”
“They (politicians) should be showing better example. What's the point of having Barisan Nasional (BN) with so many parties if they cannot discuss among themselves, and then get the public involved,” he added.
“UM scholars used to be the among the best in the world. Now it has practically stopped becoming a university that is well-regarded internationally. Now we’ve stopped trying. We published materials for local consumption, not international.”
The first advertisement resulted from a collective effort by a group of graduate students who felt strongly about the issue and wanted to protest the “triumph of politics over intellectual freedom”, as well as the lack of freedom of speech in discussing important issues such as New Economic Policy.Their concerns are certainly valid concerns. And addressing these concerns is critical in ensuring that the standards of our local universities are raised in our "attempts" to climb the global rankings. Without even looking at the merits of specific research by our local academicians, the way in which our government patronise independent research will only serve to taint them with the negative brush.
The second advertisement was by a group of intellectuals including 39 Chinese association leaders, commentators, journalists, lawyers and politicians.
To quote Prof Khoo again:
“There is probably a serious consequence on research studies now ... we have very few economists left in universities. Do you know that UM currently does not have a professor in economics?”Unbelievable isn't it? No professors in Economics at our premier university!
Prof Lim has stated that he'll like to "continue researching and would like to teach at one of our universities. But it could be that they may not find my presence and expertise convenient or appropriate."
Datuk Rafiah Salim, you have pledged to raise the standards of our Universiti Malaya (UM). You could do no wrong by making a personal call to Prof Lim to head our Economics department. After all, his international credentials are impeccable, and it'll probably help UM collect a couple more points in the research and publications criteria for global rankings. This is a golden opportunity to both improve our local standards of tertiary education, as well as retaining one of our exceptional talents who only has the interest of the country at heart.
Ironically, for the Government, Prof Lim's interest has always been on "researching issues of Malay poverty and under-development, an area which [he] worked on in the 70s and 80s in Malaysia". Surely, his efforts can only contribute positively toward alleviating poverty, particularly of bumiputeras in Malaysia.
Unfortunately, if no sincere attempts are made, in Prof Lim's own words, "I will probably leave the country again. Finding another job and leaving the country for me - like for many Malaysians presently abroad - is really the last option. We cherish our country, we are in for the long haul and want to contribute to a better society."