Academics and Politics

Malaysia is an interesting place.  As a middle-income country, it has left behind other countries in Southeast Asia (besides Singapore) in terms of economic and human development.  It has a higher GDP, longer life expectancies, a more educated populace, and just about everything that a benevolent social planner would want for a former colony in a relatively poor part of the world.  In the early 1990s, Mahathir Mohamad, then still the PM, began to implement the plan for what he called Wawasan 2020, or Vision 2020.  The goal of Vision 2020 is simple: by the year 2020, Malaysia should be a developed country, joining the ranks of South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore and leaving behind the likes of Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

A big part of this "big push" comes from education, and a big part of that has to do with secondary education.  Malaysian leaders want to make the switch from export-oriented manufacturing to the "knowledge economy", focusing more on on-shore research and higher-value-added manufacturing.  To do that, you need an educated populace.  You can do that by sending your students to universities abroad and hoping that they come back, but it is better to have local universities capable of producing top-level students.  More than just creating smart students, great universities attract the type of research that a knowledge economy needs.  Everyone knows that the best universities here are quite good–these are places like University of Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia.  But everybody also knows that the best universities here are not to the level of places like Seoul National University, National Taiwan University, University of Hong Kong, or the National University of Singapore.  This is to say nothing of the universities in Japan, the leader in Asian education.

In every conversation that I (TP) have had with any sort of policy maker, this subject has come up.  And every policy maker knows that there is a problem here.  It is simple, although people don’t say it. The problem is that academic life here is stifled.  Students are not free to do what we, as people who went to school in the West, took for granted.  By this, we mean things like join campus organizations, something which is heavily regulated by law here.  Professors here cannot express themselves freely.  The academic administration here is tightly linked to political considerations.  Again, everyone knows this.  These policy makers whom I have met, every single one of them went abroad for his or her education, and they are familiar with what needs to be done.  Yet no one believes that there will be any fundamental changes because national politicians have no desire to make these changes.  Indonesia, by contrast, has a vibrant academic community.  It’s funny to see people like Carl Ernst, a Fulbrighter here with us, who visit Indonesia for the first time after having been here for months, and come back amazed at the difference.

It’s not that allowing students to play around by going to Oxfam meetings or joining the Young Republicans makes them smarter.  The problem is that these restrictions affect the intellectual climates of universities here.  Because the intellectual climate is lacking, it is hard to attract the best professors here.  All of this keeps the quality of education down, creating an endless cycle.

We have seen a lot of this in the alternative press lately.  The big issues concern the career of Edmund Terence Gomez, a Malaysian success if ever there was one.  Professor Gomez is proof positive that Malaysia can produce top-rate scholars.  All of his education was done right here in Malaysia, and he has emerged as a foremost scholar of Southeast Asian political economy.  He published three standard texts on corporate-political relations in Malaysia by the time he had finished his PhD.  Since then, he has published several books on hot topics like Chinese business networks and East Asian corruption.  He quickly rose within the ranks of University of Malaya’s Faculty of Economics and Administration.

It would be hard to argue that there is a more accomplished domestically educated scholar.  Yet Malaysia has almost lost Professor Gomez because he has been critical of the government, pointing out the extend of corporate involvement of Malaysian political parties, links between Chinese financiers and UMNO, and the personal fortunes of political figures like Tun Daim Zainuddin. Professor Gomez has been barred from advancing past Associate Professor by his department.  The university refused to grant him routine leave to take a sabbatical with UNRISD in Geneva, a decision that generated considerable public outrage until it was only recently repealed.  Tellingly, it took a personal intervention from the Prime Minister to accomplish this.  Until this reprieve, it looked as if Professor Gomez was going to be forced to resign his post.  Not only was Professor Gomez punished, but the university even refused to give his wife, another outstanding scholar at the university, routine unpaid leave to join her husband.

Professor Gomez’s ongoing troubles (chronicled here) are an embarrassment to Malaysia.  If you ask me, the story is not yet over–I bet that Malaysia will lose Terence Gomez, just like it lost Wang Gungwu and Jomo K.S.  More important than simple embarrassment is what it means for higher education in Malaysia.  Put simply, the government is attempting to accomplish two contradictory objectives: firmly controlling the academic environment and creating international-class universities.  One of these has to give, and so far, it’s clear which one has.