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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.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Ed G
Ed G
7 Oct 2014 11.57am

In China, some socio-political activist have been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment recently for calling on their leaders to declare their assets. Absurd as this may sound in the 21th century, many of those who are in power are still holding on to the notion that they belong to a higher class which separates them from the common people thus rendering them beyond reproach. To put to plainly, it is the ‘ruling class’ and ‘commoner’ mentality. That is why the so-called ruling class would not hesitate to resort to the use of whatever means at their disposal to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ this dual class setup. The the increasing insecurity of this ruling class is usually reflected in the number, frequency and triviality of people being punished for being seen as being a threat to the status quo. And this phenomenon fits quite well with the decreasing popularity of the BN, the ruling party of Malaysia for the last 57 years.

5 Oct 2014 2.04am

Such an inspiring write up. These are the questions that every Malaysian should ponder deeply. If we prefer to live by the standard of mediocrity (because we’re not used to rocking the boat) and leave our brains to decay, then what is the point of the Wawasan 2020. If anyone’s in need of a refresher, these are the 6 challenges that must be overcome if we are to achieve it:

Challenge 1: Establishing a united Malaysian nation made up of one Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian Race).
Challenge 2: Creating a psychologically liberated, secure and developed Malaysian society.
Challenge 3: Fostering and developing a mature democratic society.
Challenge 4: Establishing a fully moral and ethical society.
Challenge 5: Establishing a matured liberal and tolerant society.
Challenge 6: Establishing a scientific and progressive society.
Challenge 7: Establishing a fully caring society.
Challenge 8: Ensuring an economically just society, in which there is a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation.
Challenge 9: Establishing a prosperous society with an economy that is fully competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient.

Ed G
Ed G
8 Oct 2014 3.47pm
Reply to  yolo

Sounds very much like the aspirations of the Rukun Negara, aren’t they?. Malaysia would definitely be a much better nation today had the words and spirit of the Rukun Negara been sincerely and religiously adhered to by all, especially those in the position of power.

4 Oct 2014 6.23pm

Who was the PM to have taken away the right of the transport minister ? It is the repugnant Mahathir during his time. But it was again during his time that he sold Air Asia to Tony Fernandez (for 1 ringgit?). Thinking there is nothing this (man) can do with this budget airlines see (he) has proven … how wrong he is. He must wish he had given Air Asia to one of his sons !

Now you also know why this lame duck is always reserved for MCA … You may not know that only company with 60% or more of any company will be granted the right to operate their transport business in Malaysia. Malaysian Chinese is not to own the majority share of the company before the company is allowed to operate any transport businesses in Malaysia. Aren’t the Malaysian Chinese citizens and sons of Malaysia and what has MCA got to say about this ? Nothing, have they helped or granted any license to the Chinese and yet they want to know why the Malaysian Chinese has forsaken them.

Stanley Rozario
Stanley Rozario
4 Oct 2014 2.14pm

The transport minister is just to carry the keys along. Only that.

4 Oct 2014 8.36am

Anyone that is a threat to the Umno dorkys and schmucks is being silenced, arrested and rounded up by the present administrators. There is nothing, at least that the people can do about it they think, they can think what they like and want. Insofar as the minority is concerned because they are only voted by the minority. Therefore any actions and decisions implemented by these dorkys and schmucks are only initiated by the minority of the people. These actions are not deem to democratic and that is what they are. The guilty parties on their ability to remain in Putrajaya are the ‘junior partners’ number of parliamentary seats thus giving them the right to remain there. Just look at all the senior and important posts are with Umno and what should that be the case ? Are you supposed to be partners but what then are you only given very junior positions, take for example the transport ministry is seen to be given to MCA but the licensing body is with the PM department. Therefore the minister of transport is really a lame duck and… Read more »

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