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Kuala Lumpur
4 October 2023 (Wednesday)

An Interview with Dr. Khoo Boo Teik: Silhouette of Deterrence

Naratif Malaysia recently sat down with Dr Khoo Boo Teik, Professor Emeritus at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo and formerly Associate Professor and Deputy Dean in the School of Social Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). He obtained his PhD from Flinders University. In this interview, he spoke about the contours and limits of freedom of expression in Malaysian academia and society. He also cautioned that not all academics demand freedom, and some intellectuals are content in propping up the establishment.

NARATIF MALAYSIA (NM): Can we begin by recounting your experience in academia in and out of Malaysia?

KHOO BOO TEIK (KBT): When I came back from my Master degree, I worked in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t come back to academia until 1987 when I joined the relatively new Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Shortly after that, I registered to do a PhD part-time with Flinders University. After 5 years in the UBD, I returned to Penang and spent 1 year to finish writing up my PhD thesis and subsequently joined USM.

So, the main substantial part of my academic experience in Malaysia was the 15-year period I spent in USM from 1994 to 2009. In June 2009, I went to Japan and joined the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE) in Chiba where I stayed for 5 years. Then I moved to the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo. I worked there till March last year. I retired in April and came back to Penang. My present position is Professor Emeritus at GRIPS and I also was the research fellow for IDE. Presently I have a visiting senior fellowship at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute) in Singapore.

NM: During your 15 years in USM, how would you describe the state of academic freedom and university autonomy there? Can you share any specific experiences or examples regarding these issues?

KBT: Not particularly for myself, but I believe AUKU did curb academic freedom particularly in the minds of the academic staff. It definitely hindered a lot of student activities. But for staff and faculty, it did not have much of an impact. Nonetheless, it stifled some of the staff who had the potential to be outspoken or dissident. For the most part, people continued to be part of civil society work if they wanted to. If they didn’t want to, the whole thing was irrelevant anyway, right? Most of the time we think about academic freedom and AUKU in terms of how people would be intimidated from taking part in dissident activities in public, and definitely, I would think there were people who were fearful. I know colleagues who would say “people should be more careful because of AUKU and all these regulations” but among people who were involved in civil societies, for the most part, I don’t think they cared very much.  The government did not actively search out for people to arrest and intimidate them, except in certain times of crises.

There was another thing which a lot of people assumed happened. People who were reputed to be “anti-government” or critical of the government were supposed to have been penalized in some ways when it came to appointments, promotions, and getting opportunities to do research with the government. I believe that to be generally true. You would have to go into specific cases where you would be able to know the extent of these kinds of harassment if you will, and you will have to get people to be prepared to talk to you about their own experiences. For most of us, there was perhaps some suspicion and expectation. If you wish to continue to do the work that you wanted to do, you just have to put up with it and take it. It’s very difficult because it’s not like you can go to a committee to protest or launch a complaint that you have been sidelined because of your political beliefs and activities. It would be extremely difficult I think to have gone to the court to file a suit against the university administrators. Although that has happened before, those cases are not the ones I knew first hand. But the general suspicion were people who, as I said were anti-government, critical, dissenting would not be rewarded, and might even be penalized (in their career promotion).

NM: From your description of AUKU, it seems to be more of deterrence rather than a strictly enforced penalty, and that generates self-censorship. It would also seem to have an indirect impact from what you have been saying because AUKU has made the appointments prerogative and power concentrated on the VC and politically appointed board of directors. Therefore, people are more afraid of crossing the VC or the government of the day, because their appointment now lies completely at the hands of these people and they cannot appeal.

KBT: Definitely it works that way, but before you reach the level of VC, you already have to go through your department, dean and then you go to the deputy VC and then the VC. You can think of it as the establishment as the whole. Ultimately of course the VC in Malaysian universities have quite a lot of power and could really decide on such issues of scope and freedom. I think it was a lot of deterrence to some extent, but as I said, for a lot of people, it probably did not have a direct and persistent impact.

Another assumption is that a lot of academics are predisposed to criticizing the government and are predisposed to undertaking research that would put them in opposition to the government. But in fact, a lot of the academic staff would be pro-government and for that reason, they would have no particular grounds for wanting to run up against the government. Again, I am not downplaying those who are sponsored by the government at different stages and the government makes it easy for the academic staff to be given tenure (in those days) after three years’ probation if you don’t create all kinds of trouble. Basically, what I’m trying to say is, don’t go assuming that everyone wants to have maximum freedom in their academic work so as to allow them to criticize the powers that be.

NM:  The period that you spent at USM coincided with the Reformasi movement. In the wake of Reformasi, were there any additional regulations or surveillance on academics?

KBT: During that period, it was special because the universities were very upset with what happened to Anwar Ibrahim. Many of the faculties and staff were very critical of the government. Of course, not everyone who was upset was actively involved in the Reformasi, directly or indirectly. But to my knowledge, there were not many people in other organisations who were involved or suffered from punishment. If the government wanted to go after everyone who was involved in being critical of the government during that period, there would be no end to what it has to do. Realistically in Malaysia, they would just close one eye and just note down who was against the government. I’m sure there are police records. But most people who were going to be involved one way or another would essentially ignore AUKU and those who would sign the Akujanji would probably forget about it or consider it as some kind of a joke. But for some people who want to be directly involved with the political parties, they probably found it necessary to leave academia altogether.

NM:  We previously spoke to Dr Azmi Shahrom, the former law lecturer at Universiti Malaya (UM) and he mentioned that the Akujanji was created in retaliation to the Reformasi because at the time, a lot of the academics were outspoken and they were trying to create a petition because the Akujanji was against their constitutional rights. Very few faculty members dared to put their names in the petition. So, it’s either deterrence or general apathy that contributed to the lack of collective action among the academics.

KBT: Yes, I do remember Azmi Sharom was prosecuted but he was quite exceptional. As for signing petitions, a lot of people were either not interested or they were concerned with self-preservation so they did not want to be involved. So you may not find a lot of people doing that and perhaps other people decided that during the Reformasi period, they will show their sentiments at the ballot box…. which they did by the way in the 1999 election. Was it a deterrence? Yes and no. As I say, it would be a deterrence to people who did not want to commit certain kinds of things. But for people like Azmi Sharom, I don’t think it was much of a deterrence.

NM:  How do you assess academic freedom in Malaysia compared to other countries like Japan?

KBT: It is such a broad issue that it is hard to be categorical about it. In Malaysia, of course, there are certain restrictions on academic freedom or more generally on the freedom of expression. You could be charged with the Sedition Act, for example. Therefore, I think the scope of freedom for academics was not that much better than the scope opens for other citizens. Nonetheless, being a member of a university does give us some leeway. For example, if you wish to criticize the government’s economic policy or certain government positions about some issues, if you were a government servant in a government department, you couldn’t do that. So, there was some academic freedom, don’t say there was none at all, plus you could also for the most part write and publish whatever that you could without having to face any severe or direct consequences. I had written a lot about Mahathir without getting any problems over it and sometimes the things that I wrote were sufficiently critical of him. I had written on Anwar Ibrahim, Reformasi and in Aliran monthly particularly before I left for Japan, and I was not directly questioned over the rights to write and publish. But of course, they were probably areas where academics have to be careful but if you were writing, you could write relatively freely. Take the areas that are defined by sedition for example, one should cross at one’s own peril if you were determined to challenge the limits of some of those laws and one had to be prepared to face some of the responses from the government.

For some other countries, the scope and depth of academic freedom were definitely much more than here. If you go to the United States, for example, you can probably say or write more things than here. But don’t kid yourself, even in the United States, there are certain things where there is no true freedom for people who cross the lines on certain issues. For example, on Israel, as it is very easy to be labelled as anti-Semitic or be deprived openly, with very little pretence, of tenure and promotion or to have people smear you in public because of that. In Japan, I did not know the scene very well. A lot of what was going on in the Japanese universities where the means of communication is in Japanese so I didn’t know a lot of the debates that went on. On the other hand, they also had academic freedom problems on the part of dissidents who used to write on certain issues that were opposed to the right-wing, ultra-nationalists circle. Sometimes they would give trouble to some academics who share independent views critical of Japan and they too would have certain problems. But on the whole, they had much more freedom. If you go to certain places such as in the United Kingdom, people can be critical of the monarchy and they can question the very basis of monarchy within the political system and probably not suffer so much of a backlash for it. On the other hand, you could probably do worse here or in Thailand where you could be thrown into jail even faster and for longer periods on the charges of lèse-majesté. So, I think in Malaysia, whether they like it or not, people have to play with certain limits on how far one can write or speak about these things.

NM:  Some academics we spoke to have also mentioned that in Malaysia nowadays, what is restricting academics from participating in public affairs is not so much due to state surveillance or restrictive laws that you mentioned like the Sedition Act or even the ISA back then. Perhaps now, it is more neoliberal e.g., lecturers are being pressured to produce so many KPIs and outputs which can only be measured in certain ways. This somewhat restricts their interest or even the capacity to be involved in activism. Do you feel that these mindsets are relatively a new problem in Malaysian academia?

KBT: Well, it’s hard to say because I have been out of touch with Malaysian academia for about 11 years. But let me respond generally to your question. This business about KPI, monitoring and trying to assess performances in the Malaysian academia has not been handled very wisely and imagined differently. The problems had already begun around the time I was in USM. It is a perennial problem.  How do you assess the performance of academic faculty? It is not as easy as one thinks. Generally, it is easy to say people ought to publish, do research and teach properly.  And for a very long time, there was no real KPIs that the people were held accountable to. Then at some point, there was a whole business of academics and rankings of universities, suddenly the people from the ministries of education and higher education also started to use certain yardsticks of objective measurements of academic performance and began to make demands on staff such as the quantity of publications. They had started when I was still there (in USM). I saw but I can’t remember the name of the particular form that we were given that we thought was very unimaginative and not very useful. It should be better thought out with the establishment, administrations and faculty representatives but we hardly had any faculty representation. As a result, when they started to impose this, a lot of faculty members found themselves lost. They were either not prepared for whatever reasons or not able to measure up to certain kinds of demands for publication in international journals or refereed journals. A lot of them for a very long time did not know what it was. I remember one time I was speaking to my colleague in charge of research and that colleague did not even know what citation meant

Whether it was a deliberate way of controlling staff, I actually doubt it. It was probably part of following a fashion that if we wanted to get better rankings of the university, our staff had to show more publications.

Whether the people who did this have a neoliberal bent, I don’t think everything can be simply categorised as neoliberal. Otherwise, we would empty its meaning. I think there was a sense that we needed to be more competitive with other universities. We needed so to speak to be able to hold our own against foreign establishments. There was a certain preoccupation for example in this year that Malaysian universities managed to secure certain high rankings. Actually, it was a bankrupt exercise in which the media and other people were fed with this kind of frenzy, which made no sense whatsoever. In brief, I wouldn’t go around calling these measures neoliberal but we need to ask whether they are now useful or counterproductive. For example, if you put so much pressure on academic staff to try and publish every year, you will find that some of them even publish in predatory journals, then what is the point of it?

NM:  Moving on, how do you perceive the relationship between the state and academics? This is more relevant in the context of Malaysia where there are certain perceptions on the role of academics to help develop policies and there are other views saying academics ought to behave like civil servants.

KBT: I think you already know the arguments, for and against. At one end, it would be rather silly to say that academic staff are or are not civil servants or like the rest of the civil servants, but they are. They draw a civil service salary, their appointments are made according to the civil service schemes and they get confirmed in universities or at least national universities so, to all purposes and intent, they are civil servants. But are they special in the sense that they are civil servants and yet they should not have to behave like civil servants within other non-academic government departments? I think I already said this, if you are in academia, you have a little bit more freedom to say, to disagree, to criticize government policies…compared to if you were working in one of the departments at the state level or one of the departments at the ministry level.

NM:  I guess where we are coming from is whether academics have the responsibilities of a public intellectual and whether AUKU or its related laws affect academics’ abilities to play these roles. In that spirit, could you share your perspective on what can be done to improve academic freedom or freedom of expression in Malaysian higher education?

KBT: Again, I can no longer speak for the Malaysian situation, because I have been out of touch with it. But if you come to the question about the state, academic freedom and public intellectuals, do intellectuals more generally, and the academic faculty more specifically, have a responsibility to speak out or be public intellectuals? Philosophically, I guess I would say yes. If you are interested in this, you can read some work that has been done by other people who have written much more authoritatively and thoughtfully on the role of responsibility of the intellectuals in society. Generally, I would accept that kind of argument and I feel I would like to see if the situation in the country were freer or if it is not freer, more academic staff and faculty members being prepared to speak out to support certain causes that are worth supporting.

For instance, to speak out for communities that are vulnerable that do not have support from many people or lack avenues of expression, and therefore, people who study on that ought to try and do something about it. Also, some have argued before that if you have a lot of information, knowledge, you ought to be able to do something about it and use it for social purposes that go beyond our own personal gains. But what kinds of roles should people have to try and be of some service to society, that question could only be answered on the independent individual level. Individual faculty members should have their own interests, inclination, restrictions, limitations to be able to decide how much time that they are prepared to devote to these things and how much risks that they are prepared to shoulder. Whether they should be public intellectuals or not, depends on a lot of things. Again, please don’t assume that to be a public intellectual means to be a dissident public intellectual. There are lots of public intellectuals who are quite happy to be pro-establishment, who get rewarded for saying the kinds of things that they say which would please and support the establishment. They are no less public intellectuals just as the NGOs who are not all dissenting, critical and anti-establishment.

*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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