It will only perpetuate the practice of making academia a tool for political propaganda, writes Mustafa K Anuar, who speaks to several academics.
Academics fear that the involvement of four public universities in the Malay Dignity Congress will only perpetuate the practice of making academia a tool for political propaganda.
State intervention in varsities, they said, is an old habit closely associated with the previous Barisan Nasional government.
Universities should not be government propaganda tools, especially one that sounds defensive and narrow such as “Malay dignity”, said Haris Zuan, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies.
“Even though universities have the right to carry out their own programmes, they should be more intellectual and not loaded with emotions by taking up such a theme,” he told The Malaysian Insight.
“Universities have long been used as a tool to provide political legitimacy to government propaganda. Unfortunately, the same thing occurs under the new government.
“Perhaps, this is a manifestation of the government’s failure to counter the rise of Malay ethno-nationalists, to the extent that it has to use universities to promote similar themes under the guise of an academic congress.”
He said organising such programmes will only legitimise the ethno-nationalist narrative that Malays are under threat, which gives rise to the question of who is actually threatening the community.
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the key speaker at the event on 6 October. He assured Malay student leaders that Putrajaya would consider the resolutions they had forwarded to him, touching on the economy, politics, education, religion and culture.
He also defended his decision to attend the congress after being slammed by critics, who said the prime minister should represent all Malaysians, not just one race.
Azmil Tayeb of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) said public varsities should neither allow themselves to be used by unscrupulous politicians nor try to curry political favours by organising events like the Malay Dignity Congress.
“It harks back to the BN [Barisan Nasional] time when such a practice was the norm. However, it is okay for student organisations to get involved in such events, as it is their right to exercise their freedom of speech and free association.
“The same rule does not apply to the university as a whole, since the university has a mission and responsibility that go beyond narrow racial agendas. It needs to cater to the needs of its students and staff, who presumably come from diverse backgrounds.
Public universities, he said, have no business getting entangled in Malay rights politics because they should embody the ideals of social responsibility, unity, justice and inclusiveness, which run counter to the event’s exclusivist spirit.
“I cannot imagine public universities abroad, such as my alma mater, University of Wisconsin, organising a White Dignity Congress event. It would cause a major uproar, and the university would be severely punished by the government.”
Por Heong Hong, also of USM, feels that even though public varsities are run with a certain degree of autonomy, the participation of the four institutions in the Malay-centric event “reflects but one episode of the long history of state intervention and the ethnocratic regime’s high-handedness in these universities”.
“Co-organising a single-race-centric event with no clear academic purpose is no doubt a waste of the resources of public universities, which are funded by taxpayers’ money.”
However, she said, the event does not reflect the view of the academics who work at these universities.
USM’s Prof Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, however, argued that a public varsity can choose to dissect and discuss whatever topic it chooses, hence, it can opt to co-organise the Malay Dignity Congress, but with the proviso that the university leadership is “open enough in the future to engage in intellectual discourses on the dignity of non-Malay and Orang Asli communities, too”.
“What was worrying about this congress was its apparent political slant, being a vehicle to prop up Bersatu’s image as a legitimate defender of Malay interests.
“What more, with the exclusion of (PKR president) Anwar Ibrahim from the list of invitees, the second tenure of Dr Mahathir as prime minister approaching its terminus, and the education minister being a member of Dr Mahathir’s party.
“Bersatu seems unprepared to accept the fact that its fortunes are likely to fade in an Anwar-led Malaysia.
“Using higher education institutions as a political tool to promote the image of a minor party in the ruling coalition, to the exclusion of the other coalition partners, does not augur well for the future cohesiveness of Pakatan Harapan as the incumbent government.”