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Anti-intellectualism in Malaysia

Aziz Bari is the latest target - Photograph: tvsnews.net

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Ensuring greater intellectual and academic freedom is not just an obligation but our entitlement as citizens of a democratic nation, says Syerleena Abdul Rashid.

Aziz Bari is the latest target - Photograph: tvsnews.net
Aziz Bari is the latest target – Photograph: tvsnews.net

Isaac Asimov, a futurist and a great thinker who made such a profound impact on present day society, regarded anti-intellectualism as being “a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. For Malaysians, such words hit too close for comfort.

With each passing day, the nuances of ignorance and imprudence become clearer to us: the slow decline of our nation’s education system, the rise of extremism, the tolerance of bigoted opinions and the acceptance of mediocrity are testament that certain ideas that exist within our socio-political landscape reveal unreserved apathy to reform or maybe it is just a disability rendered by our ruling elite.

Every day, we read about academicians, scholars and student being charged and arrested for raising pressing issues – issues valid and current to the realities Malaysians face on a daily basis. They dare speak up and question all the wrongs that exist in our society today.

Academician and constitutional law expert Dr Aziz Bari is the latest to be charged under the Sedition Act; so what exactly was his crime? Highlighting issues that were based on factual data comprising statements clearly enshrined in our Federal Constitution?

For those of us who read his articles, the contents did not appear seditious and nor insulting. Dr Aziz Bari has a unique gift – constitutional literacy; a knowledge that all Malaysians should have but take for granted. But instead of nay-sayers acknowledging such trepidation amicably, these concerns have been silenced, brushed aside and ignored. Is our nation heading towards an intellectual ‘Year Zero’ of sorts? Are we now witnessing waves of anti-intellectualism in Malaysia?

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There is an apparent trend; our ruling elite (and traditional media) tend to favour the likes of Ridhuan Tee, Ibrahim Ali and various personalities who pepper our socio-political landscape with pseudo-intellectual babble that could make great thinkers of the past roll in their graves.

Never mind that we have organisations (that shall remain nameless) to colour our otherwise mundane political landscape with half-baked analyses of religion or ‘creative’ interpretations of our constitution; their absurdities are now regarded as ideas worthy of citation!

Why are mediocre minds allowed to masquerade as individuals who have high intellect and unquestionably sound logic; while the persecution of authentic great thinkers, who are then tagged as academic outcasts is seen to be acceptable? The apparent dumbing down of our universities and other institutes of scholarly pursuits have contributed to this educational crisis.

The Unesco recommendation with regard to the Status of Higher Education Teaching personnel has established six factors to guarantee uncompromising quality of education deliverance: university autonomy, university accountability, academic freedom, academic obligations, security of tenure and collegiality. Autonomy is required and shall encompass academic, management and financial matters; most of all, external forces are prohibited from interfering.

Unfortunately, such autonomy is not granted to our local universities, and external forces are free to meddle and damage the sanctity of our institutions. The results have proven to be perilous to the growth and development of our great nation.

The concept of political, intellectual and academic freedom can only exist under a free, democratic government – under which ideas can be exchanged mutually, questions can be raised without tempers flaring, and concerns can be expressed without the fear of detention. The exchanges of opinion and the sharing of wisdom also encourage intellectualism to flourish in a society.

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Under such circumstances, society can truly work towards improving the nation and determine the type of societal evolution that is in line with our cultural values. Knowing what is guaranteed in a democracy and recognising the flaws in our system, we can’t help but question the system that is in place. Why are law-abiding citizens – in this case, respected academicians and students – allowed to be treated like criminals?

While our ruling elite continue to live in denial and savour the luxurious excesses they surround themselves with, the calls for academic freedom and political reform are becoming more apparent. It is up to us, those who have awakened from deep BN-induced slumber, to lead the way to change. Ensuring greater intellectual and academic freedom is not just an obligation but our entitlement as citizens of a democratic nation.

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