For those who are unaware, Azmi Sharom has been one of the more outspoken academics in an honest attempt to improve the quality of our local universities. He was at the forefront when Dato' Kapt Professor Dr Hashim Yaakob "strutted around like a bunch of peacocks" when UM plunged 80 spots in the global university rankings compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES).
He has also written very regularly since then, for the local English dailies on issues with regards to our universities as well as our youth. He has argued that "students should then be allowed to sort [their own activities] out themselves. After all, they are old enough to drive, get married, buy tobacco; surely they don’t need minders to hold their hand to find their faculty on campus."
When Datuk Mustapa Mohamed took over the portfolio of the Minister of Higher Education, Azmi wrote an open letter published in the Star which pleaded for improved quality, greater transparency and better leadership. He asked that "if you love your universities, you must set them free."
He was also interviewed extensively by Jacqueline Ann Surin of the Sun, particularly on the draconian University and University Colleges Act (1971).
But it looks like the straw that broke the camel's neck appears to be his last article in the Star, which spoke of "Hijinks in Student Politics" on October 2nd this year.
He spoke of the silly nature of university campus elections.
The rules in place with regard to campaigning are really laughable. There are banners and posters put up here and there but they say absolutely nothing except the name of the candidate. There is no mention of their policy grounds and their campaign promises. This is made worse by the fact that the candidates are given about a day to campaign! Add to this the ban on the creation of formal coalitions, and what you get are voters who have little opportunity to know who they are voting for. It makes a mockery of the idea of a true democracy.And he implied irregularities for the Law Faculty elections, which required a re-election.
Although not completely definitive, an occurrence during the last student elections is worrying and is further reason why a proper investigation should be conducted. What happened was that the voting for two faculty representatives had to be done again because the number of votes was more than the number of voters. The original vote was done at the various colleges. The re-election was done at the Faculty concerned.He also raised other embarrassing irregularities such as "the Selangor state government’s treating Aspirasi candidates to a stay in a luxury hotel in Petaling Jaya prior to the elections this year," which went unquestioned.
In the first vote, an Aspirasi candidate came first, narrowly followed by an independent candidate. In the re-election, the two independent candidates won by a margin far larger that the original vote.
What this shows are two possibilities. Either the original votes were tampered with or that students voted differently when the venue for the election was a neutral one. (Colleges have a reputation of being very pro-Aspirasi.)
As reported by Malaysiakini, and raised by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang, "the academic was hauled up by the university’s authority after the article appeared and was ‘advised’ by vice-chancellor Rafiah Salim not to write on matters related to the university."
In reply, the feeble excuse provided by the Minister of Higher Education was that Azmi's statement contained "factual errors".
“The campaign period was not one day as stated in the article, it was six days. The writer also implied that there were irregularities involved at the law faculty’s election (as there was a re-election held at the faculty), but this was not true,” he said.Whether it was "six days" (which I think isn't accurate either) or "one day", the basic substance of Azmi's contention isn't compromised. And the Minister did not explain how the total votes in the Law Faculty was greater than the number of voters, if alleged "irregularities" was not the reason!
It is a sad day for the academia, and a sad day for Universiti Malaya when one of the best academics in the university in terms of having the interest of students, youths and the quality of education at heart, has been barred from writing for the benefit of the public.
Azmi once told me that he has never been "disturbed" by university authorities for his outspokenness, even during the reign of the former vice-chancellor. However, it looks like all good things do come to an end, and it's unfortunate that the expectations of greater academic freedom under the new reign of Datuk Rafiah Salim has evaporated so quickly.
Read more on Kian Ming's take on the issue here.