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Khoo Ying Hooi on the long, constant struggle for academic freedom

Academics should have a say and influence in society

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DR KHOO YING HOOI/ALIRAN

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Naratif Malaysia sat down with Dr Khoo Ying Hooi, head and senior lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya.

Dr Khoo completed her PhD in politics and government, examining social movements and democratisation with a focus on Malaysia’s Bersih movement. She has done extensive research on Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Timor-Leste. In this interview, she spoke about the slow, long and constant struggle for academic freedom in Malaysian universities.

Naratif Malaysia: Can we begin by summarising your experience in academia in Malaysia and your views on the state of academic freedom in our universities?

Dr Khoo: I joined the university about 10 years ago as a tutor before getting my PhD. I must say that it has been a journey for the past decade, and I am still learning.

I came from the corporate sector and human rights background. The experience of different backgrounds for me somehow enriches how I view things.

If you talk about academic freedom, we need to understand that everybody joins academia with different views and mindsets. Particularly regarding job security or insecurity, different academics will have different levels of risks that they are willing to put up with.

In principle, I think academia is and should be a public asset. However, in reality, the university is not exactly functioning like that. Some academics contribute in different capacities… and also remember that when we talk about academic freedom, it is not just the social scientists we are talking about.

Academic freedom matters to scientists too, and they have their issues. I think this area has not really been explored. Even in Covid-19 times, scientists have issues with doing, funding, and disseminating their research. The same with issues related to technology such as artificial intelligence.

Throughout the years, I have been writing publicly in the media. That came naturally, even before I became part of the university. I didn’t expect this could be an issue. Then, of course, I realise academic freedom is quite a huge challenge.

Could you elaborate on that? The challenge(s) you faced?

Around March 2015, I was writing for the Malaysian Insider (about the #KitaLawan protest), and I was investigated under Section 500 of the Penal Code for defamation over that article. This kind of harassment is sometimes seasonal. I was relatively new in the university, perhaps naïve, so I didn’t expect that could become an issue. I do constantly get people talking to me, “Perhaps you should tone down.” But I really think if I can back myself up, it should not be an issue.

Perhaps protection (about academic freedom by the university) should be heightened as well. I fall into the more lucky category because I know what to do. For some, they sometimes might want to voice out their views, but they could be worried.

That is why the academic staff union is so important and needs to be expanded. Of course, the university administration has a role to play in upholding academic freedom. However, the academic staff union can play a more significant role at the micro level and provide an immediate support system. Their voice should be more vocal. Imagine if the media was not informed about the case, the public would not have known.

Maybe there are cases (regarding infringement of academic freedom and harassment of academics) that we don’t know. Not everybody has access to the media or is comfortable talking to media. The fastest way is the Persatuan Akademik (academic union), and they should be expanded. However, I understand their constraints as we live in this environment where some people are afraid to be associated with them to avoid being labelled a troublemaker. That is a huge challenge.

How do you connect or reconcile being an academic with being an activist?

It is not something that I think is contradictory. I worked in the human rights commission before, and my research was on human rights. I wouldn’t say I was an activist back in school; rather, I was nowhere close to that. But I do write occasionally. I believe working on human rights and civil society topics will be quite artificial if I don’t advocate it. It would be quite superficial if I didn’t say something and take a stance. Moreover, I don’t see any issue why I shouldn’t do those two together: instead, we should have more scholar-activists in our country.

What do you observe of the level of acceptance of academic freedom among the academic community in Malaysia?

I think to some extent, I can take the risk, although not everyone can do that. I understand that the level of state repression and the restriction of freedom of expression can deter some people.

If I take one instance: during the Barisan Nasional time, after I completed my PhD on the Bersih movement, there was an opportunity for me to introduce new courses. What I did was introduce a course on social movements and democratisation. It is currently one of the core courses in my department. The course approval went through with no issue. There was no resistance.

Sometimes it is about the step you are willing to take. Of course, there are other factors, such as the support system and environment in my department, that allowed this to happen.

Do you agree that academic freedom is very much dependent on the autonomy of the university?

Of course, on the macro level, university autonomy is essential. Nevertheless, there are many angles to academic freedom. Legislation can be a hurdle. It is hard to push the boundaries at times. The structural constraint with regard to both is something that we acknowledge and are aware of.

But there are steps that we academics can take to push that boundary. Whether you can do that or not depends on the factors that I mentioned earlier. Sometimes, it is also about whether the academic is willing to do so.

Can you see any correlation between academic freedom and the quality of knowledge production in our universities?

Yes, definitely. For universities that focus on ranking and journal publications, I wouldn’t say those are something we should totally ignore and abandon. But it depends on why we are doing it and whether we are doing it in an ethically correct manner.

However, one of our primary roles is as educators. So I think we should put emphasis on educating our students, eg how we disseminate knowledge to students. If we talk about academic freedom, these elements must come into place. Students must come into the picture when we talk about academic freedom.

Do you think that most academics in Malaysia have a culture of fear? Fear of what?

It is partly depending on what kind of research you are doing. Some are not controversial, so it would probably not be much of an issue. But for others, it can be. Nowadays, people who research on China, for instance, can be at risk too. At the international level, there is repression for scholars writing about certain countries.

I think apart from job security, perhaps the culture that we have here is important. The culture of fear is often there. Not everybody can take the risk, although they have much to say.

Speaking in media and public is not something everyone is comfortable doing. Not many are trained to speak vocally. That is where the challenge of a public university is.

There are some instances where I receive comments like, “You say things like this in this political climate, it can come with negative consequences.” But actually, if we can back it up with facts and evidence, that shouldn’t be a problem.

This is important for young academics – because they might join and their senior academics are not telling them these things; the culture can be negative sometimes. I think that kind of environment is not conducive to young academics in terms of speaking up.

Looking forward, what can be done to improve the state of academic expression in Malaysian higher education?

Universities talk about academic freedom on paper. What is needed is that they must protect it.

But what I think is missing here is the support for and by academics. Although we have some unions and movements like Gerak, the groups are small and are confined to certain familiar sets of people. These groups need to expand to further emphasise to universities that academic freedom must be protected.

Similarly, academics must know they have an obligation to protect academic freedom. They have a role to play in this country, and they should not be ignorant.

Auku [the Universities and University Colleges Act] and its related acts and disciplinary rules have been criticised as an impairment to academic freedom. Do you think that abolishing Auku will open a way to nourish academic freedom in Malaysia?

I don’t think Auku itself is the main culprit. The act that the state has been using regularly is not Auku, but actually, they use the Sedition Act among others. There are certain legal constraints, but also other factors like the culture factor mentioned earlier.

How do you define a public intellectual? Can academics play the role of public intellectuals?

Some academics think that if you are not doing research on a certain topic, you shouldn’t speak about that.

My view is different: there are always different conditions. As a Malaysian citizen and an academic, I don’t see why I cannot speak out if I have my concerns when it comes to socio-political or economic issues. I don’t see why I cannot sign a petition that could be against the government of the day. People do listen to academics, apart from think tanks, etc. So yes, academics have a role to play.

As academics, we also have services components in addition to research and teaching components in our key performance index (KPI). That is a smaller component, but the point is that it is evidence that academics have a duty to serve society. To some extent, the university recognises the importance of contributing to society, but the appreciation level is lower than other components.

However, we should not be constrained by the points and stop doing what we should do as academics. It will be so sad if we become academics who only want to fulfil KPI and not do more. In the past, when there is a political crisis, academics come together to write a statement. Now, this is happening among many NGOs. Some academics still do it, but it is a very small group.

I think it is time to expand that: academics should have a say and influence in society. Certain academics speak out only to please certain parties, but that is their freedom too unless they spread racism and that is not something we should go for.

Occasionally, the challenge comes from the academics themselves too. Before they speak publicly, they reserve or censor themselves.

Observing our young academics today, what do you feel about the future of our academia and country?

I am an optimist. If you are not hopeful for the country, perhaps you would give up or go somewhere else. That would be such a shame.

I would say it is an ongoing struggle. Even if you are in a fully democratic country, there are still issues there. There is no certainty in fighting for academic freedom, as if you reach a certain point and you can stop.

I remain hopeful in Malaysia that educators have big roles to play. And I hope more will speak out simply because it is our duty. In fact, we see young academics are starting to speak out as well, like Naratif Malaysia; there is a group of young academics doing that.

The challenge is how we deliver to the non-converted group. We can’t speak among ourselves. We can’t afford to complain all the time, as we need to progress and move forward. Hence, we should also see students as a very important component in our roles.

Apart from speaking out, academic freedom is also about teaching and disseminating knowledge to our students. If even that involves censorship also, then we are not contributing to building the younger generatio. And not just on campus but also outside: for example, some academics in Malaysia do talks and public workshops outside of the campus. That kind of space is commendable and should continue.

Another point I would like to add is the role of established academics, referring to professors, etc and those who have been long in academia. [They] have a role and they should also somehow play the mentorship role in this journey to cultivate a healthy environment for young academics.

At the end of the day, the road to achieving a greater level of academic freedom could be a lonely journey, but we need to keep moving. – Naratif Malaysia

This interview is part of a research project (MAL 169 – After 50 Years of AUKU: The Role and Impact of AUKU’s Development on Academic Freedom in Malaysia) by Naratif Malaysia in collaboration with the Malaysia Reform Initiative, Higher Education Malaysia Association, Cent-GPS and Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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