What is vital is a free flow of ideas in academia that would help subvert attempts at promoting narrow-mindedness and sheer denseness, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
The University of Malaya, particularly its vice-chancellor, Abdul Rahim Hashim, seems to have a penchant for courting controversies that academics worth their salt would not want to touch with a barge pole.
The university has lodged a police report over the protest made at its recent convocation by civil engineering graduate Wong Yan Ke, who claimed that the vice-chancellor made a racist remark at the Malay Dignity Congress.
Flashing a placard on stage that demanded the vice-chancellor’s resignation, attacked racism, and insisted that the country is a Malaysian land (not Malay land), Wong made his point crystal clear in an unconventional way at a ceremony that is usually filled with protocol and conventions. This, in turn, earned the wrath of the university administration.
But making a police report against this peaceful protest is akin to the university resorting to a sledgehammer to kill an ant, especially when Wong was merely exercising his freedom of speech – which shouldn’t be criminalised.
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While it could be argued that the protest at the convocation went against the conventions of a solemn ceremony, lodging a police report against the graduate doesn’t answer questions posed to the vice-chancellor.
If anything, it suggests a feeble attempt to demonise the student who was willing to stand his ground. The university has already blamed Wong for having sullied “the good name of UM”.
Given the available facts of the matter, we earnestly wonder who really is the one who smeared the university’s image over this issue.
The vice-chancellor offering an explanation for his displeasure regarding this incident and for his Malay congress participation, in a civilised manner, would have been a dignified option. This would have been in line with Education Minister Maszlee Malik’s insistence that the vice-chancellor is an open-minded academic.
This incident could have been avoided had the vice-chancellor cared to explain in an intellectual fashion, soon after the congress had ended, his presence at the gathering, which, for all intents and purposes, was partisan and racist.
Apart from concerned students, certain civil society groups have also demanded an explanation for his participation – and that of other universities – in the controversial congress, whose intellectual scope was myopic and exclusive, apart from the rabble-rousing elements in it.
If being labelled racist is not a badge of honour, then it is incumbent upon the vice-chancellor to make his official position clear – as this form of negativity would indirectly have an adverse effect on the reputation of the country’s oldest university.
Right-thinking Malaysians are also concerned that universities funded by taxpayers’ money, contributed by all ethnic groups, had lent legitimacy to this congress, which stirred uneasiness, especially among non-Malays.
To be sure, public expressions that are tinged with racism would only compound a social environment that is already heavily laden with the politics of race and religion.
Besides, it violates the conventions of an academic discourse when only one side of the argument was championed by the congress while opposing views were not given a decent platform at the meeting.
A university that is serious about bolstering its reputation as an institution of academic excellence cannot afford to be distracted by elements in society that have narrow and dangerous agendas.
What is vital is a free flow of ideas in academia that would help subvert attempts at promoting narrow-mindedness and sheer denseness.