UNIVERSITY of Malaya’s recent reminder to its students and staff not to make any public comments on the university’s or the government’s policies and operations as well as its decision to suspend the Chinese Language Society for an academic semester is arguably not in the best interest of educating and cultivating students.
As a long-standing national university often given priority for development, UM, in issuing the ‘gag’ reminder, is seen to be suppressing academic freedom and freedom of speech, and putting freedom of association among students under pressure and control from the higher-ups.
Admittedly, it’s not possible for universities to be completely independent of politics and societal influence but restricting the freedom of speech for students and staff, and the space for students’ activities is not only a step backward but also the curtailing of the right to freedom of expression.
Has UM’s decision been prompted by the imminent 14th general elections? One could only speculate.
In any event, the University’s ‘don’t comment’ reminder will serve to negate the aspirations spelt out in the National Transformation Plan to develop and rank Malaysia’s universities among the best in the world.
Universities should allow their students and teachers to practise freedom of speech in order to create an open society. Differing opinions, expressed in a constructive – as against a destructive – manner, should be encouraged and not silenced.
When intervention causes a university to deviate from the basic concept of academic freedom and student autonomy, that university will be weighed down with restrictions and become increasingly infirm, eventually losing its vitality as a result.
In such a scenario, even if the university has first-rate scientific research facilities and adequate funding, it will find difficulties in attracting or retaining quality staff, let alone cultivating creative and critical thinking, and motivating students.
The ultimate loser will not only be the university but also the entire community and the country.
A university should be a catalyst for development of a country. As evident in the separation of the two universities which was originally a single entity – the University of Malaya and the National University of Singapore – the success and strength of the two have become increasingly apparent and their achievements somewhat also reflect the development of the two countries.
Thus, it is undeniable that the framework and structure set by UM will significantly affect the fate of Malaysia.