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When UniMAP’s response to exam question begs more questions

Zakir Naik - Photograph: Maapu - Creative Commons, commons.wikimedia.org

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University autonomy must be accompanied by accountability to academia and the public, especially when there are issues that have social and political repercussions, writes Mustafa K Anuar.

Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP) failed to enlighten Malaysians, particularly academics and students, regarding its controversial exam paper on ethnic relations recently.

Defending the paper that hails Indian preacher Zakir Naik as an icon of the Muslim world, following public calls for accountability, UniMAP vice-chancellor R Badlishah Ahmad insisted that there was nothing wrong with the question.

Indeed, there is something wrong with his response given that the university academics concerned had skewed answers to the exam question on Zakir in a way that only projected him as a personality beyond reproach and intellectual scrutiny.

In other words, the answers provided could be read as the question-setters being insensitive to the sentiments of students, especially non-Muslim ones, whose communities already had issues with the preacher.

Badlishah said there was an error found in choice number four in question 60 of the paper, which was the word ignorant that was wrongly translated into Malay as “bodoh”.

But, as implied above, the problem with the paper was more than just the misinterpreted “bodoh”, because the way the answers were crafted suggests an element of ignorance, if not denseness, on the part of the setters regarding our social context.

To be clear, the exam setters, who were said to be multi-ethnic, had not taken into consideration that a question about Zakir framed in such a way was unsuitable, nay troubling, in a context where divisive politics is practised to the hilt by purveyors of ethno-centrism and religious bigotry in the country.

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In other words, it was the exam setters that were out of sync with our social context. Contrary to what Badlishah claimed, the critics of the exam paper didn’t take the question out of context.

If this was the result of a conscious and careful vetting of exam questions by the exam-setters, then they must have turned the term “vetting” on its head.

For the uninitiated, vetting normally requires close scrutiny of the exam papers, looking out for misspellings as well as factual errors and questions that do not meet the overall objective of the course concerned.

The scrutiny of exam questions for a paper on ethnic relations should demand stringent inspection to avoid not only inviting unnecessary misinterpretation that could lead to students losing marks but also giving legitimacy to ethnic bigotry and religious extremism among students.

In an academic setting such as universities, it is imperative that exam questions set should help enlighten students about complex and intriguing issues such as race and religion.

While academics ought to have the freedom to design their respective course structures, have their own pedagogy and set exam questions without the interference of university authorities, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a serious misstep, such as the Zakir question, should make the authorities look the other way.

Similarly, university autonomy that was promoted by former education minister Maszlee Malik should not be interpreted to mean that the university has carte blanche to do almost anything it wishes without caring two hoots about serious criticism from academics and the general public. For this autonomy must be accompanied by accountability to academia as well as the public, especially when there are issues that have social and political repercussions.

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Let the nagging questions regarding the exam paper be answered adequately and responsibly through a thorough and independent investigation.

UniMAP will be doing a great service to itself if it makes this move.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

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