Adding insult to injury among intellectuals
by Azly Rahman
I should imagine that Malaysian public universities will soon have their own academic freedom committees as a pre-condition for a renaissance in education that must begin in the menara gading (ivory tower).
I should also imagine that Malaysian scholars are spared of any form of standardised tests that will measure and define their intelligence as a basis for promotions.
I wrote in the last column that the Surat Akujanji contains a clause unfit for the mental consumption of academicians especially, and the government ‘servant’ in general.
In Malaysia, it is stated that if an academician refuses to sign the letter of the pledge of loyalty, two things can happen: he/she will be demoted and in the worst case, expelled from the university. One cannot even ask questions; an oxymoronic phenomena in any university.
That is the regime of truth in which intellectuals are currently living. It is the world wherein the worker is asked to work hard in the name of religion (kerja sebagai ibadat) and in the name of university mottos such as ilmu, budi, and bakti, yet he/she is governed by those who wish to have an easy pass to power. Philosophy, the mother of knowledge, had to kow-tow to pseudo-politics.
The academician does not have a choice; he/she must comply even if he/she mounts a valid philosophical argument in support of the free spirit of inquiry and in defence of not being shackled.
But truth awaits its seekers. The role of the intellectual is to journey closer and closer to the truth of his or her own intellectual quest both in deep solitude and in the company of other scholars.
Intellectuals must disengage themselves from any regimes of truth of the day in order to be paragons of virtue, to be respected, and to help dispel a postmodern “myth of the lazy native”, borrowing the words of Malaysian thinker Syed Hussein Al Attas.
Altruism and ethics
Veritas (Truth) reads the inscription on the logo of Harvard University in America; an institution that must be emulated in its respect for the scholar.
If we are to have ‘Harvards of the East’, there are fundamental notion of progress we must embrace. If we are to call our universities ‘world class’ universities, we must groom our intellectuals to have dissenting views and never afraid to speak up so that they may help society reconstruct and regenerate. Is not the role of the academician, one of a Socrates-like scholar that will provide more questions and less answers and one who applies scholarship to social reconstructionism?
No one should claim ownership of the minds of the children we are educating, not even the most committed of all academicians. The children are to be cultivated as thinking and feeling beings if we are to teach them how to design a more tolerant, ethical, and less-corrupt society. Of course, the hands of creativity must be held by altruism and ethics.
Democracy must be made a lived experience, not a lip-service. It must begin in the corridors of academia. Socrates, Rousseau, Dewey, Montessori, Froebel, and Freire all fought tooth and nail for the schooled mind to be free.
How do we academicians engineer a ‘regime change’ in universities if the philosophy that governs these noble institutions is no longer close to our heart's desire and the intellectual force we are attracted to? How do we use our simplicity to revolt against the complexity of an increasingly corrupt social order?
How do we wish to be governed as homo academicus; the academician whose pursuit is not of wealth, power, and connectivity to the broadband of wealth-power keg, nor to alliances we still find suspicious, or to ‘theocratic truths-forces’, or to some ‘ethnically based doctrines’, or even to ‘blind internationalism that's sucking nation-states into its empire’?
How do we do this - maintain an honest living and be free to become the creative, scientific, rationalistic, philosophical, and moralistic guardians of our nation?
We must offer alternatives to any attempt to subvert this ‘truth for truth's sake’ or ‘true with value’ enterprise in which we engage daily. We cannot remain the voice of Reason if our lives, as the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, have been reduced to being mere utilities in an educational setting foundationed primarily upon ‘instrument reason’.
We will live a life of "dread" as the Danish philosopher Soren Kiekergaard put it. We would wake up one morning, metamorphosised into a cockroach-like character of Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's brilliant and haunting short story, ‘The Metamorphosis’. Like Samuel Beckett, we would still be waiting for Godot.
The institution we inhabit, borrowing anthropologist Clifford Geertz's notion of a Balinese cockfight, is structured by "high stakes" and "low stakes" power play.
We as academicians cannot be allowed to become Kafka's "vermins" in our historical march of progress in this nation that is increasingly heteroglossic, cybernetic, and problematic.
Our daily toil is now governed in toto by those who own the means to change policies; by those guided by the ideology that is increasingly problematic and no longer in synchrony with the changing times.
Changing times demand Malaysian intellectuals to stand up with pride, like the Bugis warrior-philosopher Raja Haji, and help mediate the contradictions between the alienated inner self and the corrupt-to-the-core politics of the day, between the demands of a nation wanting to be saved from ruins to socio-politics that is fragmenting the nation into post-industrial tribes.
It is in times like this that we need the young, brilliant, and eager academicians to learn how to read the signs and symbols of this post-modern nation, and to understand the political-economic and post-structuralist nature of the national power structure in order to deconstruct its base and superstructure and construct the social order anew.
‘Things Fall Apart’, borrowing the title of the African writer Chinua Achebe's masterpiece, to describe the state of Malaysian academia, in that our cultural core that guides our intellectual fervor cannot any longer hold.
Academicians are now relegated to the role of ‘knowledge-workers’ in a production-house of ‘truth-force’ governed in a tightly-knit matrix produced by an even bigger regime of truth. Ultimately, we may discover that the regime of truth is controlled by even a grander truth international in character.
Borrowing the words of linguist Julie Kristeva, our national psyche is now heteroglossic; authored by too many.
If the Akujanji is not enough a technology of mind control to put intellectuals in a glass bubble and instill his/her fear of the state, the latest testing invention might be effective in demoralising the man and woman in that glass bubble.
What are standardised tests for? What are we testing?
All our intellectual lives that is supposed to be lived creatively and productively have been about ‘being tested for this and that competency’. From tadika to qualifying tests for a pre-admittance into a doctoral programme, tests are constructed and administered based on the needs of those who feel the need to filter society.
Academicians do not need any more standardised tests! They have been subjected enough to all forms of tests and measurement and calibrations and constraints that are killing their creativity, reflectivity and productivity.
They have been burdened with large classes that are slowly killing their brain cells, burdened with administrative positions, with the mental demands of long meetings amongst others, and subjected to a university culture that is slowly degenerating into a post-vocational, shopping mall-type of higher learning that's churning so-called knowledge workers who are even willing to have themselves graduate in three years.
These poor souls called academicians need time to reflect, to come together in academic circles to construct new ideas for scientific, philosophical, and social reconstructivism, and to be left alone to be free to think. There is too much interference from the state that is corroding the character and corrupting the soul of the Malaysian university.
To begin with, academicians should have been rigorously selected in the first place and promoted based on a record of research, teaching, publication, and social service as intended originally. We will not need further testing. Set them free!
Test politicians, too
However, if they are to be tested on their competencies, let us then concurrently test politicians at all levels - from the prime minister to the wakil rakyat. Let us test the politicians on their knowledge of political theories, paradigms of social change, theories of national development, and on the impact of cybernetic changes on sovereign nations.
Let us test them, borrowing James Scott, on concepts of "the moral economy of the peasant society" and how the work of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have had a devastating impact on Malaysia's transformation. Or let us test our politicians on the impact of corruption and the maintenance of political dynasties on the development of a nation.
Let us test them on the theories of nationalism, on the people's history of Malaya, on the colonising strategies of British and American imperialism, on the work of Kung Fu Tzi, Lao Tzi, the ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharatha’, ‘Bhagavad Gita’, the Koran, and on Aristotle's ‘Republic’. Let us also have them inquire into the making of Plato's philosopher-ruler vis-à-vis Machiavelli prince.
I think this will be a good test of competency that will benefit the nation in decades to come. They must be tested too because they were elected to political office. They asked for the people's votes and the people should expect more competent people to serve them. Politics of tomorrow need more philosophers and not plunderers.
The tests must all be in essay form; for this format will yield the best for judgement. But what must the nation do then to those who have not met the minimum standard of competency to govern?
Academicians, we do not need to be tested; we need to be evaluated based on a good system of qualitative assessment that will help us grow, and not help us ‘drop out of school’.
Academicians, we do not need to go through a National Service Programme for University Lecturers. We need to form our own schools of thoughts, so that we may chart new frontiers.
Enough is enough with the constant and consistent insults designed for the Malaysian scholars. We need to be given the room to grow as ‘post-modern philosophers in our respective fields’ who will one day produce frontier knowledge and cutting-edge ideas so that there will be more home-grown committed intellectuals we will produce in decades to come.
We will not need gurus from outside such as Walt Rostow, Milton Friedmann, Lester Thurow, Edward deBono, Phillip Kotter, Alvin Toffler, who tell us what to do so that the nation can be better colonised.
We need homegrown gurus who will speak for the growing multi-cultural poor.
We need to create more and more thinkers like Fatimah Hamid Don, Syed Naguib and Syed Husin Alattas, Latif Mohideen, Usman Awang, Kassim Ahmad, Khoo Khay Kim, Chandra Muzaffar, Sham Sani, Ungku Aziz, Syed Husin Ali, Haron Din, Mahathir Mohamad, Shahnon Ahmad, A Samad Ismail, A Samad Said, Awang Had Saleh, Johan Saravanamuttu, KS Jomo, Cheah Boon Kheng, Lee Lam Thye, Lim Kit Siang, Rahmah Bujang, Hatta Azad Khan, and many others who are original thinkers in their own field.
We need to one day have communities of scholars that will be as profound as members of the Vienna Circle, Berlin Council for Logical Positivists, Frankfurt School of Social Research, Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, and many others that have influenced the modern intellectual tradition; just as French and German scholars have influenced much of frontier thinking in contemporary social theories.
Why not, borrowing Howard Gardner, develop our "multiple intelligences" and assess us based on that instead of criminalising us with standardised competency tests?
Academicians, we shall be great again. We must harness our powers within so that we may engineer our renaissance.
"Educate! But first the educators must be educated," said Nietzsche.
To the Malaysian academician - "Educate!"
But first, we must form academic freedom committees and argue against Academic Competency standardised testings.