Malaysia’s education philosophy claims to have a vision to create a balanced human being.
However, what is neglected in this vision is to highlight the value of knowledge democracy in our society.
Knowledge democracy can be loosely defined as the production of knowledge through just means. It enables easy access to knowledge which implies the right to academic freedom.
Most importantly, knowledge democracy rejects academic dishonesty.
Finally, an education system that values knowledge democracy places a high premium on constructive intellectual debate across all levels of society.
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Therefore, although there is a very slim chance it will happen, the additional sentence that I propose to be added to Malaysia’s current philosophy of education, should read:
“Our universities must aspire to be the bastions of intellectual activity, to be agents of growth and development, for the confident and ethical nurturing of the human spirit, via pedagogy, intellectual debate and public engagement.”
It is a mouthful, but so is our current philosophy. Furthermore, knowledge democracy as an educational value may be difficult to achieve in a country like Malaysia, due to the highly politicised nature of our education sector.
This link between politics and education has to do with the broader system of governance within our society. Since formulating any policy is a function of government, there is bound to be a degree of political interference in policymaking. This happens in many societies.
However, in some countries, this link is too rigid, oppressive and widespread. In other countries, it may be confined to specific sectors such as finance, which links politicians and their politics, solely to university donors.
In most developed countries, the higher education-political link is less intrusive, and scholarly rigour and intellectual output has managed to maintain its vibrancy.
Conversely, in many developing countries, including Malaysia, the higher education-political link is pervasive, whereby the political elite micro-manages educational institutions and, in the process, constricts intellectual, critical, objective and world-class output. This is especially so in the human sciences. Scholarly output is severely affected because it is conditioned by politics and the self-serving agendas of politicians.
Instead of producing new knowledge or critiquing existing knowledge that might be relevant for all aspects of society, universities act as ‘feeders’ for specific political and economic agendas. Such output should not be considered scholarly or ‘intellectual’.
This brings me to another phenomenon. The media and Malaysian society often refer to the people behind such output as scholars and intellectuals. Actually, they are not. It is time to differentiate between an academic and a scholar.
It is vital for any society to conceptualise the difference between who an intellectual is, and the academic or ‘the job’ one has in a university. The late Prof Syed Hussein Alatas wrote in his book Intellectuals in Developing Societies, about the role of the intellectual in societies. He also highlighted how political interference in education is detrimental to a nation’s education quality, and the kinds of leaders who hold back a country’s progress.
Alatas wrote of the need for a community of intellectuals to influence a nation’s progress. Chapter Four of the book is titled “The Fools in Developing Societies”. It might be a good idea if the top politicians and civil servants in our ministry of higher education take some time off to read this chapter, or the entire book. Only then might they be more equipped to reform our universities.
Furthermore, our leaders should understand the importance of cultivating a community of scholars and intellectuals at the universities. They have a role to play in society, over and above the work of academics.
Intellectuals are able to see the bigger picture. They are engrossed in ideas to improve education policy over generations. Scholars think about how policies could positively and holistically iaffect a society inflicted with a myriad of variables, in addition to party politics and election outcomes.
For Malaysia, this means an education foundation that will improve employment, social mobility, ethnic integration and national cohesion; generate a sense of patriotism and mould an all-round human being, in the long run. However, our education policies so far have been largely conditioned by politics and detached from the noble message of our current education philosophy.
An added problem in the universities are poorly staffed faculties, and underpaid, demotivated and underqualified lecturers. The academic accreditation process in the country is also heavily politicised when questionable conflict-of-interest appointments are made to university boards.
Due to the tight association between politics and education, the general understanding in universities is that critical scholarly debate is counterproductive. The claim is that debate has the potential to be provocative and ‘biadab’ (uncouth) and will ‘offend’ the sensitivities of the political elite.
Herein lies a profound misperception.
Debate does not always lead to clandestine or disruptive action on the ground. The purpose of any scholarly debate among university students and professors is to discuss various ideas, project opinions about past knowledges, and debate the relevance of new ideas within current developments in society.
Debates encourage reading across disciplines, which trains the mind to be receptive to alternative opinions. Debates also improve verbal expression, and build personal confidence and character.
Genuine scholarly debates that used to take place in the corridors of our universities decades ago, were hardly about manipulating facts for nefarious or violent political ends. They were always about being exposed to the injustices facing humankind and strategies to overcome them, to improve social conditions. – Free Malaysia Today