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4 October 2023 (Wednesday)

An Interview with Dr Azmi Sharom:  Fear and Self-Censorship in Ivory Towers

Naratif Malaysia recently sat down with Dr Azmi Sharom, formerly associate professor and deputy dean in the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya (UM). He obtained his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. In this interview, he recounted the insidious effects of AUKU on students and academics alike. More importantly, he argued that public universities should be exempted from the Statutory Bodies (Discipline And Surcharge) Act 2000 because it explicitly prohibits academic staff from criticizing the powers-that-be. Finally, he suggested that the appointment of the Boards and the Vice Chancellors have to be taken away from the government.

NARATIF MALAYSIA (NM): Can we begin by asking you to summarize your involvement in Malaysian academia?

AZMI SHAROM (AS): I graduated with my first law degree from Sheffield and joined Universiti Malaya (UM)’s Law Faculty in 1990 as a tutor. In 1991, I was sponsored by the Skim Latihan Akademik Bumiputera (SLAB) scheme to do my Masters, so I went to do my Masters in Nottingham. Then, in 1996 I went to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to do my PhD. That was sponsored by SLAB as well.

In 1992, I came back as a lecturer. I was promoted to Associate Professor around 2002 or 2003, then Deputy Dean in 2004. I was Associate Professor until February 2019. I had to retire because it is a requirement under the Pension Act, for national service and join the Election Commission.

NM: You joined academia during the 1990s. This was about twenty years since AUKU was instituted. How would you describe academic freedom and university autonomy in Malaysia? Maybe you can share some of your own experiences related to those issues.

AS: Well, I think the effects of AUKU were more obvious on students. Personally, for many years, I would say for the first 15 years of my career, I didn’t really feel the effect of it because I just did what I wanted to do as an academic in two areas—teaching and publishing. I never had any interference in either of these areas. In terms of my “pure academic works”, I personally never felt anything.

Having said that, it does not mean that AUKU did not have effects on academics. I think it has an effect. It was a very quiet, very insidious effect on academics because people were censoring themselves. There was a sense of you better not say this and that because it may offend somebody. I don’t think AUKU actually restricts academics in that way at all. The only real limitation is that you cannot criticize university policies outside of the university. I trust you have read the (AUKU) law. It is very difficult to find anything (specific) which controls academics per se. Nonetheless, one has to view the situation not purely from AUKU because Malaysia in those days had the Internal Security Act (ISA) as well. That was the most frightening part of the law. In my point of view, people were overly cautious in their work. The fear they might say something that the government may find offensive. So, that was the situation I found in myself for the first 15 years. But, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s when I got into direct trouble. It wasn’t because of my academic work, but my public works in the newspaper. I have been shown the show cause letter before. I lost count of my show cause letters that I got. But, I just replied to them and that was it. It wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t stop my career anyway.

There was one time in the early 2000s when Parti Keadilan Nasional (now known as Parti Keadilan Rakyat following its merger with Parti Rakyat Malaysia) organized a talk on education and I went there to listen. Right then, former UM lecturer Dr. Syed Husin Ali asked me to speak. I wrote an impromptu speech there. I thought it was not a big deal. But the next day, it came out in Malaysiakini. Then I got a show cause letter to explain what I am doing there. Actually, when you are working in the university, show cause letter for academics is like a letter from god, they are so scared of it. I got that kind of experience but it doesn’t bother me or stop me from what I am doing. It wasn’t until that time, when I wrote that article published in The Star about the way the university was running the student elections, that my Vice Chancellor became very angry at me.

NM: Specifically on AUKU, when did you first hear about its existence or were there any incidence where you or your colleague encountered some laws restricting academic freedom, autonomy, freedom of association or in your teaching?

AS: Actually, with regards to academics, there is another law much worse than AUKU. That is the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act 2000. This law is much worse because it was designed for a statutory body like Dewan Bahasa. The history behind it was that during the Reformasi 1998, there were people who were critical of the government and they came from these types of organisations—the statutory bodies. Basically, the law was designed to control the staff under those statutory bodies. The public universities also happen to be statutory bodies, so we fall under this law too. Under the discipline section in the schedule of the law, there is one provision that states you cannot be critical of the government or criticize the government, and funny enough if you want to praise the government, you must get permission first. In the field of social sciences, it should be impossible. This law is much worse for us than AUKU which, to my knowledge, hasn’t been used often. I think it was used before against a medical academic who was critical of the government in some issues. Statutory Bodies (Discipline And Surcharge) Act 2000 is much worse than AUKU because it is very clear. This law is also what the Akujanji letter is based on. Akujanji is basically taken verbatim from the discipline section of that Act. If you look at the text of Akujanji, it is directly from the Statutory Bodies (Discipline And Surcharge) Act 2000. That’s much worse.

NM: Do you see Akujanji as potentially harmful or merely a formality?

AS: It can be harmful because it’s like an agreement. It can be interpreted to be an agreement. It can be interpreted to be a condition of employment. If you are found to be in breach of it, there is a possibility that it can be used against you. So of course it’s harmful. When they first introduced it in 2000, well, this was the problem among Malaysian academics. I hope young people do not follow the same path. What we did then was that there’s a union in UM, so we were organizing how we can oppose this. One possibility is don’t sign it at all. People will be afraid as it is going to be seen as ‘mengingkari janji’. So, we decided to come up with a very mild solution in which we produced the letter that we signed (Surat Akujanji) under economic duress. By signing this, we do not relinquish any of our constitutional rights. So, when you sign this, you give a letter to your Dean. Make sure you give them a copy with a stamp on it. By doing that, we hope to protect ourselves in the event of being charged by them, but this is our condition which was accepted by the university. This is our solution.

Out of 2,000 academic staff in the UM, guess how many signatures we manage to get for that? Just 12 out of 2,000! Despite the fact that we went for a roadshow explaining what we wanted to do, even when faced with the law which could be used against you, and given an option on how to oppose this in the most mild fashion, only a handful of people pick it up. Most didn’t. This is the problem. It’s not AUKU, it is the academics itself. It is a culture of fear, it’s not really a question whether the law will be used against academic staff. But, it breeds a culture of fear, overly cautious, overly nervous about losing their jobs. You control people without actually controlling them.

Now, you also mentioned autonomy. Autonomy is a different story altogether. The problem with university autonomy is that if you are looking at the appointment of the Boards of Directors and Vice Chancellor, it is still very much in the hands of the Ministry of Education. At the level of university management, there is a lot of government influence. That’s why it is very difficult to get an independent-minded Vice Chancellor and Board of Directors in our public universities.

NM: What about the Piagam Universiti?

AS: That is an act created by the university, isn’t it? I don’t think there is any real problem with that. The university charter is not something we really bothered about. To be honest, I don’t even look at it because it never comes to my attention. Among my academic friends who are more activist in nature, they never raised it either.

NM: You received almost all of your tertiary education in the United Kingdom. You have vast experience in the public university having been in UM for almost 30 years. In the context of academic freedom, autonomy and AUKU, how do you see the differences between academic freedom in local and foreign universities? Is academic freedom in Malaysia getting better or worse? What are the factors which contributed to this trend?

AS: I think you have to look at it in context. Compared to some countries like Myanmar, Malaysia is excellent. Even the universities in Thailand, the military government is trying to interfere in the university affairs. There are countries where academics get killed. But compared to Western European countries, this issue doesn’t even arise. If you hear the complaints about Western countries, what they consider as an attack on academic freedom is the First World problems like the “cancel culture.” Problems like government interference are unthinkable. So it is purely contextual. I have spoken to academics in conferences all over the world. There are some places which make us look like heaven, and some others which we look like hell.

NM: On that note, it was during Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister when you were in the UK. Coincidentally they started neoliberal reforms like introducing tuition fees for the first time. Does it affect academic freedom there?

AS: All that stuff does affect the efficacy of the university, but not necessarily the freedom in the sense of what we are talking about. Of course it does affect the quality of the universities because the courses which are considered to be non-money making might be under threat because the funding has been cut. That’s a different problem altogether compared to what we are facing now.

NM: How do you perceive the relationship between the state and the academics? Some people believe academics should be treated the same as other public servants. Some other people would even go further to the extent of claiming academics ought to behave as a civil servant.

AS: It depends entirely on what you think of the purpose of the university. Legally, academics is not a civil servant. We are a statutory body. Although we follow the pay structure, we are actually public servants, not civil servants. Legally we are not.

Anyway, it depends on what the university wants to do. Universities are supposed to be places where knowledge is expanded upon. Then, you cannot beholden to anybody, be it large industries or the government. You need to have freedom to expand knowledge, right? If you just want them to be just a training centre, then don’t call them universities. Yes, we trained people by lectures, but we are all expected to do research and publish. What we research and publish should be expanding the boundaries of knowledge. You just can’t do that if you are beholden to a government that has its own agenda. You must have your own agenda, principles and values. If you look at the philosophy of the universities, the English universities started as professional training. The history shows they trained the clergy and legal professions. That was the history in the UK. In Germany, it was pure sciences. You can still see that attitude. German universities are very pro-pure sciences, in the sense you do research for the sake of it. American universities’ history can be seen as part of nation building. So, when you look at various universities, there are several logics behind the universities, but nonetheless all universities depend on freedom to be able to do their work properly. For example, if you are in the law schools but you can’t criticize a law made by the government, then how can it be developed? If you are in medical school but you can’t criticize public health policies, how are you going to make it better? Do you want the university to make things better for society at large, or make the university listen to the agenda of someone else? The money comes from the public. We are serving the public, not the government. 

NM: How do you see the role of academics for society? Do academics in the university have the responsibility as public intellectuals?

AS: That’s assuming you have intellects in the university! Well, it’s better to have a lecturer explain a certain point of view or to push forward a certain point of view, rather than a politician. Politicians have their own agenda, goals and aims. Whereas if something comes from the academics that own integrity, there will be a certain degree of impartiality. The opinion of academics in the public sphere is very important because they have undergone training, have their own resources and responsibility to put forward a particular view if something is wrong. Having this training and resources, you shouldn’t confine it in the classrooms, especially if your subject matter is of public interest. As an academician, we have discipline to find evidence to make sure our arguments have a solid foundation. We do have a responsibility to make sound arguments based on data, fact and precedence, not based on populism.

NM: You have mentioned that AUKU does not directly restrict the academics, but AUKU or other related laws affected their ability to fulfil the public roles and responsibility through indirect effects such as self-censorship?

AS: There are so few academics who are willing to put themselves out on record to say things. It’s embarrassing. I’m looking around, how many out there are doing this kind of public work. I can see Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi in the Faculty of Law doing it, but very few others are putting themselves out there to give their take on what’s happening in the society. I agree some academicians freely put their opinion in public if it’s in favour of the government because it is the way things work. I don’t think it’s AUKU, but maybe Statutory Bodies (Discipline. And Surcharge) Act 2000. It doesn’t take much courage actually. You can do it in a very boring academic way, but do it.

You don’t have to ‘cari pasal’. If you ask me whether things do improve, it does improve for a very short while after the 14th General Election. The media is more open as well to different opinions. But generally, it doesn’t change because those laws are still there. The university autonomy is still practically zero, the upper management is still very much a choice of whoever is in government. It doesn’t matter if it’s BN or PH. Even under PH, you can still see (political) appointments to the directorship which were controversial. The structure of how universities are run is still not in favour of real autonomy. It doesn’t take much for a Vice-Chancellor to say “I won’t take action against you as long as what you said is academically sound.” So why is it so hard for a Vice-Chancellor to say that? It is because the position of Vice-Chancellor is beholden to someone else.

NM: What do you think is the best way to improve academic freedom in Malaysian higher education?

AS: First and foremost, universities must be exempted from Statutory Bodies (Discipline. And Surcharge) Act 2000. This is not unusual because there are some of those statutory bodies which are actually exempted from it. For example, Securities Commission Malaysia and Bank Negara Malaysia. So universities must be exempted from that law. Our Vice-Chancellors made a bit of noise when the law was introduced but now they keep quiet and give up pushing for exemption.

The vast majority of AUKU’s effect is about students. That has to be amended because most of AUKU is about the structure of the university, how the university is created and it’s very administrative. In terms of university academics, the section stated that the prohibition of criticisms towards university policies should be taken out. There shouldn’t be any limitation on what we said. The only limitation on what we say is on our own stupidity. Academic freedom is the freedom to say what you want to say and to be crucified if what you say is extremely moronic.

Secondly, the appointment of the Boards and the Vice Chancellors have to be taken away from the government. The appointment of the top management has to be autonomous from the government so that there is greater security of tenure. If you look at other countries, methods of selection are only by the board or council. It’s an open call and application for the job. It differs from one place to another. In some places, the staff union is involved, or even the student union is involved in the selection process. Overall, what we need is creating an institutional structure of a university which is free from state involvement.

* This interview is part of a research project (MAL 169 – After 50 Years of AUKU: The Role and Impact of AUKU’s Development on Academic Freedom in Malaysia) by Naratif Malaysia in collaboration with the Malaysia Reform Initiative (MARI), Higher Education Malaysia Association (HEYA), Cent-GPS and Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM). This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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