Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The last of Azmi Sharom's columns?

In a way, I shouldn't be surprised to hear that the authorities at UM have barred (or so it seems) Azmi Sharom, of the law faculty, from writing any more columns in the Star. Perhaps I should be surprised that he was allowed to write as much as he did, many of them articles criticizing the state of higher education in our country. The straw that seemed to have broken the camel's back was certain factual errors in his October 2nd column criticizing the university's handling of campus elections.

This was Tok Pa's reply to Lim Kit Siang, as reported by Malaysiakini:

In his ministerial winding-up, Higher Education Minister Mustapha Mohamed told the House that Azmi was called up after UM found that his article contained two “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.

“As an academician, he should be objective and write the right facts. The honourable Ipoh Timor (Lim) has been influenced by the inaccurate facts in the column,” he added.

I don't know much about the details of the campus elections in UM and in other local universities, but it seems that these inaccurate facts were at best minor details. Indeed, it was surprising that Tok Pa or the university administrators didn't adress what I thought was the larger issue which was the fact that some pro-establishment candidates were put up in a luxury hotel during the period of the campus elections. Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

In the same Malaysiakini article, the newly appointed UM VC was asked about this matter:

On Oct 6, the UM vice-chancellor told a press conference that the university believed in academic freedom but such freedom would not directly enhance academic excellence.

Asked to comment on whether the university restricts its academicians from writing freely in newspapers, Rafiah however appeared evasive and said writing in newspapers does not help improve academic excellence as newspaper columns would not be cited by academic journals.

While she is absolutely correct in saying that writing in newspapers doesn't help improve academic excellence (in terms of intellectual contribution in one's field), she fails to understand that academics are often called to play a bigger role, including contributing to the larger public debate as public intellectuals. Azmi Sharom was clearly contributing to public discourse in his capacity as a public intellectual.

She also fails to recognize that a university should be open to criticism from its own faculty members, especially on issues which have to do with its reputation. Instead of clamping down on such debate, the VC should listen to such greviances and address some of the root causes of such greviances, to the extent that is possible.

Many academics in my own university, Duke, expressed their dissatisfaction publicly with the way the university administrators were handling a high profile rape accusation case involving the players in the lacrosse team at Duke. Many of them wrote letters to the local and national press and none of them were 'hauled' up by the university administrators to be reprimanded or warned, even though some of them did not have all the right 'facts'. Indeed, the administrators at Duke were proactive and tried to address the concerns of many of these academics through the setting up of special committees to further investigate the issues of concern.

What if Azmi Sharom had written columns criticizing certain government policies instead of highlighting certain shortcomings in the local universities? Would he have also been hauled up for not playing his part in the 'nation-building' project? (I wonder if any of the administrators have heard of a New York Times columnist by the name of Paul Krugman who also happens to be a dabbler in the field of economics?)

The ironic thing about the muzzling of academics such as Azmi Sharom (as well as others such as Terence Gomez and KS Jomo) is that the reputation, domestically and internationally, of our public universities is further damaged. The presence of such public intellectuals, who were given space to contribute to the public discourse, actually gave the local universities at least an appearance of having some academic freedom and some proof that a healthy academic environment of debate and discussion within our local universities was not entirely a myth. Worse still, if the actions taken by the university administrators eventually lead to Azmi Sharom leaving UM for greener pastures elsewhere, then we would have lost another good academic.

We were giving the new VC at UM the benefit of the doubt, crediting her (and other VCs) with a measured response in regards to the latest THES rankings as well as inviting opposition members to an event officated by Pak Lah (the setting up of the Royal Ungku Aziz Chair for Poverty Studies). This latest move to try to muzzle Azmi Sharom would certainly count as a mark in the negative column for the new UM VC. It shows that she's not ready to meaningful space for open, transparent and purposely discussion and dialogue in the public realm.

On my part, I hope that the Malaysiakini report is not correct in the sense that I hope that Azmi Sharom might have gotten away with a strong reprimand / warning and that he will be allowed to continue writing his columns in The Star. But perhaps this is more wishful thinking on my part?


Anonymous said...

People like Azmi, Gomez and Jomo are dare-devils but they are loners taking up issues on their own in challenging the authorities. I applaud them for their bravery and dignity in 'fighting' for a just cause. Unfortunately, loners are easy target as they can easily be reprimanded should they cross the line, a line of obscurity that changes from time to time.
Obviously, we are still far away from being a civil society, supporting from afar but too weak to join in or defend them as they are being forced out of the spotlight into the shadows of darkness.
And while the author singled out the UM VC, I wonder if there are bigger hands behind the curtain that could have ultimately determined the fate of Azmi.

Anonymous said...

I see this as an regressive step for a premier university..

On one of my overseas trips in international confereces, I read that a professor of law from Thamasat University criticizes Thaksin in Bangkok Post... Where on earth we can find this in Malaysia?

In Japan, when important issues and bills are to be passed at Parliament, political leaders from government and opposition
parties are given chance to air their views in Prime time newshour... Can we see this in RTMs or even TV3?

No way...their NHK is so impartial..

Yes...we may have "Look East Policy"...but the extent we have learnt or copied from the Japanese management style??

Come on..wake up...our dear political leaders!

We live in a globalized world... we have eyes and ears!


Anonymous said...

May be it is time we should set KPIs for AAB Government!

Dont give lame excuse why FDIs have dropped...

Look at the way we treat our foreign students...HOW ARE WE GOING TO BE REGIONAL HUB in education ?

It takes years for them to decide whether to issue special card for students....

and still they are deliberating....
right now

Do we believe that?

AAB, you must fire your officers who dont their jobs...or wawasan 2020 is just a dream...

We are telling you the truth...

shake up or shake out
which one we want ???

Anonymous said...

If what was suspected to have happened to Azmi is true, then it is certainly irrefutable evidence that our entire government, from AAB downwards, views our university as absolutely nothing more than just degree mills. If that is so, then let us just drop whatever pretenses there are left and sell the papers a la Irish International University.

I have always suspected that the sheer drop in our education standards in the eyes of the world (and not just those rating bodies) is because our authorities really have no idea as to the meaning of the concept of "education", however they may want to profess or postulate.

We need not look very far, just need to look at how our primary kids are not being educated at all.

They excuse used on Azmi reminds me of the article in The Star where it was reported that those who build multimillion ringgit bungalows without caring to obtain the proper approvals actually has the cheek to attempt to equate their grotesque disrespect for the rule of law to a DAP member's cluttering up a five-foot way outside his sundry shop.

It is exactly as a dear Malay friend of mine telling me of a Malay proverb that says, in effect, "we get excited staring at a mosquito in the distance, but ignores the elephant passing under our very nose". The recalcitrants are insisting that the mosquito and the elephant are of about the same size.

Things are looking so bleak now.

Anonymous said...

Tony and Kian Ming, i wonder if the government would order the closure of this blog. There has been a lot cases, where academics or even the publics are told to shut up. After all, this blog has revealed the ugly side of Malaysia extensively and the high reading rates. There has been rumours on internet crackdown too, although they insist just those who are not saying the truth, but that's just an excuse. Only what the government said is true, even twisted facts. It would be really sad if this really happen. I hope there won't be any trouble to both of you.

Anonymous said...

Please, can you find a way to drum up some support for Azmi, I wouldn't mind writing to the Minister of Higher Education or UM's administration if you could provide an email, phone number or mail address. This sort of gag order sadly fits Malaysia right into the thirdworld category.

Anonymous said...

The greatest minds in the world arose from the freedom of thought and expression. There is only so much we can learn from books and paper as well as all so recognized subjects such as moral that have no value outside in the global world. In my opinion, this is what really separates us from the fast-paced, ever-changing educational programs outside this country. Where in the US, for example, one is encouraged to voice an opinion to the greatest extent, here, the most tiny of a whisper is hushed all for the sake of racial-unity. Is the freedom of expression and speech a crime in a democracy? If a riot, protest, outcry or debate arises from such views or comments, doesn't that than mean that there really is something wrong? To keep it quiet would be denying the truth and to deny the truth would be the whitest of lies. To lie is not a crime but to the true morals of an individual. However, faith and trust is now questionable. My dear government, my faith in you is indeed in question. Where we spend so much money on sending astronauts to space to make 'teh tarik' or continually emphasize racial unity and 'bangsa Malaysia' as well as build a 110m keris monument in the middle of probably the most historic and culturally rich state in Malaysia, public funds disappear, the poor are left in the dearth of land and our standard of education continues to spiral out of control. As what Sir William Golding wrote in his novel 'The Lord of the Flies', "If only one had time to think."Unfortunately for us, we can think but don't have the time for it. How can we move forward if we're hooked on the issue of racial unity when the definition of unity is blurred. How can we achieve a world-class education system when thinking individually and speaking out is a punishable offence?

Anonymous said...

This is NEP era.This is "Ketuanan Melayu and Hak Keistimewaa Melayu".

Born under this sign.Choose your education path carefully so you don't end up being persecuted like Azmi Sharon.

Next in line..Kian Ming and TonyP, perhaps???

Anonymous said...

First...the axe falls on Azmi,...

Then it will fall on KM and TP...

After that the axes will fall on those well known commentators of the blog such as Ah Piau the academic, LuLu,Kherol ie those still attached with govt services

I think its high time for all of us to build a very large Noah's ark so that all the bloggers and commentators can 'take a slow boat to China'

Anonymous said...

If I am Azmi, I will leave UM now since the govt and the university adminstrations will be pressing him.
I see no hope of him getting promoted under these situations
remember the proverbs"
1 The wheel that squeeks get oiled all the time

2 A nail that stands up will get hammered

Anonymous said...

Cant you all see it? If they can do such things to a respected academic like Dr Azmi, what more can they do witjstudents ' manipulations'?

Just to hold Dr Azmi on one or two minor errors reflect their intensity to ' hang' Dr Azmi by the noose

This would be a " warning" to all other " Dr Azmis wanna bee's" wats in store for them!!

And mind you, this is not even Communist China or KGB!!

Anonymous said...

Well...if ur fightin' some justice,
there usuaally some crooks get in your way..just like comics :p ..

Dr Azmi is a good lecturer..i've taken one of his paper at UM Law faculty (actually i'm from different faculty), it's fun and will accademically open your mind..

And regarding UM VC....if u wanna know the true story, u should ask the students, they know better..i prefer hashim yaacob more than rafiah..tq.