Stifling ‘sensitive issues’


I’ve always believed that social scientists – sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and others – analyse society and make evaluations and assessments based on their analyses.

Their aim would be to help us all understand societies a bit better, resulting in a greater appreciation of problems, our similarities, differences, norms, values and quirks.

Granted, there can be – and indeed there are – differences in approaches, theoretical frameworks, even methodologies, among different social scientists, resulting, quite possibly, in different emphases and, invariably, different findings.

But, nonetheless, the point is to yield results/findings and opinions and to publicise them. And, if you were to believe someone like Marx, to go one step further – to change society, to make it more fair and egalitarian.

I’m outlining all this in order to address in a rather roundabout way a recent, shall we say, episode, where a group of Malaysian social scientists had gathered to elect new office bearers for their national-level organisation.

In the discussion that ensued, I suggested that there were so many social issues being brought up in Malaysia currently that needed commentary, perhaps guidance even, from an academic organisation such as this. More so a social science organisation.

The example that was brought up was the occupation of Dataran Merdeka by Malaysian students asking for an end to the student loan system, PTPTN, and the recent disgraceful and unprovoked assault on these students by organised thugs.

As an academic organisation, I suggested, we needed to support and uphold the right of these students to air their grievances in a peaceful manner, as they had been doing all this while, without their being molested or assaulted.

Indeed, we may not agree with their arguments, just as we may not agree with the arguments of the LGBT community, yet we must allow them that right to their arguments, their stand. And the right to air them.

It was then that one relatively young academic expressed her fear about giving an opinion, about stating a stand regarding what she deemed ‘sensitive issues’.

For her, her main ‘fear’ stems from the fact that she is employed in a conservative, local public university (aren’t they all and isn’t it just a difference of degree?), is not ‘confirmed’ yet, hence could face terrible repercussions.

The most ‘terrible’ repercussion, of course, being losing her job, closely followed by losing out on promotion.

These seem to be the fear of many young academics these days, a fear similar to that held by those I have criticised in the media industry. And it is a fear based largely on self-interest and a desire to ‘succeed’ and ‘progress’ in life.

And, really, more often than not, the fear is more imagined than real, very much like the fear of the Bogeyman.

And even if it were true, surely if a PhD holder loses her/his job in a public university, with those kind of paper qualifications – and, often, kulitfications – it wouldn’t be very difficult really to get another job, especially with Malaysia now being an ‘educational hub’?

Indeed, what was really depressing about that particular episode – and, certainly other similar episodes before this – is the total lack of accountability to one’s profession, the lack of understanding about what we do and why we do it.

Beyond making a quick ringgit, of course.

This chasm, this disconnect between the woman’s background as a social scientist and her self-perceived role as a social science academic, evidently and unfortunately, is quite widespread these days in this and other professions in Malaysia.

It is a disconnect that often seems to be rationalised away in this manner: We work for this organisation as social scientists/teachers/journalists/broadcasters; the organisation has certain rules and regulations; we obey these rules and don’t question the legitimacy of these rules and regulations in order to progress; indeed, our aim in life is to ‘progress’, not to put anything right; so we hold our tongues, bite them even, and learn to censor ourselves; that way, we minimise any risk of losing our jobs, possibility our liberty even.

But, hang on a minute.

Surely those young men and women at Dataran Merdeka are risking much more than that by being there?

And surely they are deserving of some support from us comfortable, self-serving professionals for being brave enough to take a stand? Instead of being ignored, like the beggar at the gate?