Academicians and the ‘Akujanji’
A simple sentence/clause can clearly illustrate how these academicians are being controlled and their intelligence subdued. It takes us to deconstruct the clause and analyse what kind of ‘truth’ it embodies and how the ‘truth-force’ operates in the learning environment, to understand how thought-control operates.
The clause I am referring to is from the now infamous Surat Akujanji (Pledge of Loyalty) for ‘government servants’. Let us inquire into the genealogy of the production of the clause, how it is used to dishonour the university, and how the academicians are being silenced and stupefied by it.
The irony is that we have graduates from universities abroad who themselves were trained in the best and rigorous environment of learning that protects intellectual freedom.
We expect them to embody the ethos of a committed intellectual who will translate good expressions of freedom of practice, but instead, they have become the new colonisers of the neo-colonialist state.
Let us now compare, for example, what academic freedom means in America and in Malaysia. Let us then offer suggestions on how the Malaysian academic community can have its right to be intelligent.
Right to be intelligent
In the US, public school teachers, community college and university professors have all the guarantees of academic freedom as rights in their collective agreement with their respective institutions; rights that are also enshrined to ensure that the students they educate will become intelligent and informed citizens.
Academic Freedom clauses from the American Association of University Professors include
1) Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
2) Teachers are entitled in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institutions should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
3) College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
Another example comes from the reknown research university, Columbia University, in New York:
‘The University is committed to maintaining a climate of academic freedom, in which officers of instruction and research are given the widest possible latitude in their teaching and scholarship. However, the freedoms traditionally accorded those officers carry corresponding responsibilities. By accepting appointments at the University, officers of instruction and research assume varied obligations and duties.’
Clarifying that commitment, it states:
‘Academic freedom implies that all officers of instruction are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subjects; that they are entitled to freedom in research and in the publication of its results; and that they may not be penalised by the University for expressions of opinion or associations in their private or civic capacity; but they should bear in mind the special obligations arising from their position in the academic community.’
These statements of guarantee have become the cornerstone of the culture of ‘free spirit of inquiry’ enshrined in the thinking of American academicians and one that emanated from the protection of the fundamental rights of the individual.
The Surat Akujanji is doing exactly the opposite. Consider the implications of the clause (ix), in Bahasa Melayu and in English, from the document forced upon the Malaysian intellectual community:
bahawa saya antara lain:
(ix) tidak akan ingkar perintah atau berkelakuan dengan apa apa cara yang boleh ditafsirkan sebagai ingkar perintah (I shall not be insubordinate or conduct myself in such manner as is likely be construed as being insubordinate.)
Such a sweeping and generalised statement endangers faculty members in their pursuit of truth through critical inquiry. The clause entails that the academician shall have no freedom, rights, and responsibility in deciding the nature of ‘truth’ to be pursued. The idea of insubordination implies that the work of academicians will be subjected to the rigours defined by the prevailing ideology and those who are in power to impose such ideology.
In addition, the difference between the Academic Freedom clauses and that in Surat Akujanji is clear; while the one produced by American institutions encourage freedom and responsibility, the one adopted by Malaysian universities take away such freedom and assures that even academicians are inherently irresponsible.
In other words, the American academic community sees the ‘goodness and genius in the human being’ while the one adopted by Malaysian universities see the ‘evil and sub-standard intelligence of the human being’ and the need for the mind to be subdued, tamed, and domesticated. The latter is unquestionably reminiscent of colonial discourse.
Why should we perpetuate such a discourse among the people of independent Malaysia?
We must understand that organisations are made up of human beings who have personal biases, grudges, and motivations that can be counter-productive to the development of intellectual tradition of any university.
A leader of an organisation, even in a supposedly intellectual environment as in a university, can never claim neutrality in the way decisions are made. Our purpose as intellectuals must be to produce as best as we can, statements of guarantees that the nobility of the university environment must be preserved by all, and especially that rights of the faculty must be guarded against attempts by the leadership to subvert them.
The phrase ‘insubordinate… likely to be construed as being insubordinate’ is definitely problematic. In the hands of an autocratic leader who wishes to maintain his/her hegemony over others, or to maintain control and power over the powerless, or to maintain rule via Machiavellian tactics, the semantics of ‘insubordination’ can be a powerful instrument of oppression.
Ultimately, who defines what ‘insubordination’ means and what are its dimensions? It is too subjective of a term to be used in such a supposedly-objective manner. It will be open to abuse. Academicians do not wish to be oppressed nor abused especially in an academic environment.
Why can we not learn the virtue of intellectual freedom and the fundamental rights of the individual from nations such as the US? Must we not implement what is good from world-class practices?
Is not the purpose of education in Malaysia is to educate its students to become intelligent, creative, critical and open-minded? Do we not understand what a ‘university’ means and why we lecturers and professors have the moral obligation to help open minds and not close them shut? Do we really understand what a world-class university means?
What then must the Malaysian academician do?
Academicians need not be powerless entirely. In times like this that try their intellectual sensibility, they may discover that they can no longer seek the help of the university to address grievances - judging from the fact that there is no provision for an academician to argue for academic freedom, and that there is no mechanism to attend to such grievances fairly.
Clause (viii) of the Surat Akujanji guarantees that such a recourse cannot be taken. It states (in translation) that an officer “… shall not bring or attempt to bring any form of outside influence or pressure to support or advance (his/her) claim or that of other public officers relating to the public services …”
One must be aware how damaging the clause can be to the interest of the aggrieved party. Should there be instances of abuse of power, corruption in all forms, attempts to subvert the intellectual foundations of Malaysia universities, or any form of unethical practices, the clause would ensure that the complainant would not be able to seek the help of more credible outside agencies/organisations/bodies/persons to resolve those issues.
How do academicians criminalised by the system seek justice from the administration when they do not have faith in the organisation’s capability to be objective and to understand what the rights of an academic might be - when in fact, there is no charter or covenant/compact to guarantee such rights?
We must now be concerned how our universities will, in future be seen in the eyes of the international academic community with this clause that illustrates the intellectual problematique of this nation.
What then must we do? We must have the universities nullify, revise or discard the Surat Akujanji.
We must demand that the university administration forms academic freedom committees so that parameters of freedom of expression can be constructed. The committees must produce a statement of guarantees of academic freedom to be signed and honoured by all.
We must encourage dissenting views from as many perspectives as possible, true to the development of newer philosophies of multi-culturalism that is developing.
We must elect progressive university leaders into office; ones that will promote the rights of academicians and students to be more intelligent and more rigorous in their thinking.
Malaysian academicians, stand up for your rights!
Do not allow those who abuse power to trample on your hard-earned intellectualism. We have generations of creative young minds to educate. They are waiting for academicians to regain their right to be treated intelligently.