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4 October 2023 (Wednesday)

An Interview with Prof Dr Tajuddin Rasdi: Disempowering the Academic Culture

Naratif Malaysia recently sat down with Professor. Dr Tajuddin Rasdi, currently a professor at UCSI University and formerly a professor of Islamic architecture at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). Prof. Dr. Mohd. Tajuddin Bin Mohd. Rasdi is an academic who dares to speak up on academic freedom. For him, as reflected in this interview, academic freedom is a symbol of the relationship between the influence of knowledge and the role of academics in society. In his opinion, academics, knowledge and society are tripartite components and they cannot be separated. Apart from serving at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) previously, Prof Tajuddin currently works as a Professor of Islamic Architecture at USCI University. With his vast experience in the public and private universities, Prof Tajuddin offer us a dynamic perspective on academic freedom.

NARATIF MALAYSIA (NM): Thank you Professor for willing to be interviewed today. Maybe we can start with a broad and introductory question first. Could you share about your involvement in Malaysian academia throughout the years?

TAJUDDIN RASDI (TR): I became a lecturer in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) in 1997, and I was appointed as an associate professor in 1997, and then as a professor at the age of 43 in 2005. My field of study originally for my PhD was Islamic Architecture, concentrating on Mosque Architecture, developing guidelines for it to become a community center by reinterpreting the hadith and sunnah of the Prophet.

After that, my field of studies is centered on what we call Malaysian architecture, history and theory. Theory means philosophy, and philosophy means things like “Why are you building mosques with domes and minaret?” At certain points, you can consider it a sin because these are useless and the prophet says it’s useless, but as you can see, many people are still doing that. So that’s philosophy. Same thing when you look at the building in Perdana Putra, why are you building it like a palace? It’s a democratic building. The Prime minister is just a servant to the people. Why are you making him look like an emperor? The axial, the axis, the setback, everything is like a French palace. So that is when we talk about philosophy. When we talk about history, why certain things happen this way and that way. Then I began to write and sort of became a reference point to the people on Islam, especially to the non-Muslims and also on the idea of democracy, and racial harmony, and the idea of religious tolerance and acceptance, not tolerance but acceptance. Trying to redefine spirituality in the construct of nation-building. So, I went into what we call nation-building with respect to social and religious harmony, that way I could relate to not only the people but to city design and planning but also buildings and interpretation but mainly is about how we relate to one another. I have published 56 books, 6 of them are not on architecture, the other 50 are on architecture, published by Dewan Bahasa, Penerbit UTM and all that. The most important thing for me now is writing in the news media which runs about more than 400 articles within a span of 10 years, with seven different news media.

NM: How would you describe the state of academic freedom and university autonomy in Malaysia, especially given that your work was quite critical of the status quo?

TR: Many people say we have a problem with academic freedom, but I am basically proof that there is academic freedom. I was never threatened by AUKU. Maybe because I had, not to say supporters but people who didn’t really make any noise. But sometimes they would “remind” me. One time I was reminded by my Dean that there were some people in the board of governors who were very uncomfortable with my criticizing the building of Putrajaya architecture. So I asked, “Do you want me to stop?” He said no, he was just relating it to me. Sometimes the message is to be careful, but what is there to be careful about?

So, in one sense, I was never threatened but I was called once to the Dean’s office to be “advised” about one of my articles, but they never threatened me with AUKU, in fact i even got my optional retirement which I have been asking (for a long time) until that article came out and then they gave it to me. So that is on the one hand, and I would stand and say that, that’s why I said to you, the research on academic freedom was 40 years too late. For me, the problem is not academic freedom, but academic culture which just changed.

I saw the change throughout my time and I will explain that later. The idea of academic freedom that I saw becoming a certain problem was only during the time when Anwar Ibrahim wanted to give a lecture at Universiti Malaya and they closed the gate and they turned off the electricity. It was very funny and undignified as well in the sense it also occurred in the International Islamic University Malaysia where they also closed the gate and electricity. So if you were to say, yes there is a problem of academic freedom, that one was a problem and I also heard about the cancellation of events by the student. So in that aspect, you can see there is a problem of academic freedom. But on academic writing, I know about AUKU because I asked a lawyer at UTM once. I asked “what is this Akta University, how will it affect us? Let’s say if I were to criticize the university or the government in a layman’s manner, yang itu, you can be charged, the lawyer said. But if I write academically, piece by piece in the media and public, also you can be charged he said. So in effect, the AUKU exists there, whether you want to charge or not, it entirely depends on the Vice Chancellor (VC). You see, AUKU reads like you are not really allowed to say anything to the public like journalist or write without the expressed permission of the ministry of the higher education, which is stupid because for example, if a reporter asks you a question after a conference, are we supposed to wait for ministry’s approval before answering that? The other thing is that, if I were talking about my area of expertise e.g. the mosque architecture, who the hell in the ministry is more knowledgeable at this matter than someone who is specialised? So it doesn’t make sense.

I also went through this Aku Janji document. It was introduced at the height of the Reformasi movement and I did sign the stupid document and unfortunately after that I just threw it away. I should’ve kept it and framed it somewhere and show people the stupidity of the people there.

To summarize, the issue of academic freedom from my perspective is the issue of the role of academia in society, the role of the university in relation to nation building and the role of knowledge and how do you see all of these things. When I was an associate professor, they created this KPI, before that, it was not around, and suddenly there was this KPI in being a world class university. I said, buat apa nak jadi world class? We need to have contributions that we can see, that can have an effect, who cares whether the world recognizes us or not. And I said this is ridiculous because why should we celebrate the idea of someone acknowledging some sort of high impact when Sungai Kim Kim almost damaged the lives of thousands and you have papers that say so but nobody actually informed the public and tried to make some changes. You spend billions of research on international Islamic university scholars and what the people talk about is whether this glass is haram or halal, while budak-budak tak puasa makan dalam toilet. So what is the point? The university seems to exist simply for its own self. They created the energy of creating publication and when you sit in the senate room, they all talk about numbers, the numbers of papers, of this and that, everything has numbers but has no meaning whatsoever. The university only exists for itself to generate something that will give benefit to the individuals in the university only, which is stupid because number one, they are owned by the Malaysian people, the Malaysian people paid the salaries of the VC and academics not just to teach the children but also to have knowledge and that knowledge is supposed to be informed to society for changes and all that; and number two, in Islam, it is a sin to monopolize knowledge that can be used for the benefit of all.

NM: You mentioned about the Aku Janji just now and you mentioned it was created at height of Reformasi in 1998 and probably the political context of its creation would be interesting to know. Maybe you can share about what you remembered about its creation until now because even in the present days, lecturers have to sign the Aku Janji.

TR: Perhaps because of Anwar Ibrahim’s networking across many universities and NGOs like ABIM and IKRAM, and the idea then was making the lecturers so busy to do something else rather than be mini politicians. The height of the Reformasi movement had a lot to do with the peraturan (rules) saying you cannot go to demonstrations, there were a lot of demonstrations at that time, and you can even be caught. There were students who were caught and faced serious repercussions. At that time, I found out my name appeared in the Special Branch’s list. Apparently, that was the day I discovered that there were agents who paid students in class and I also went to ceramah because I wanted to get the views from the opposition parties. And someone told me at the ceramah that there were people taking your license plate number. And there were also students telling me that, “Prof, polis datang dan tanya pasal Prof.” Special branch were recording my speeches especially on Islam. even when I go to the church to talk about Islam, they appear. When the topic is on Islam they will appear because the organizer will get a call from special branch to say that they will be there. That is an interesting detail to know because as a pensyarah university you go to a political ceramah and they would know of it, for new lecturers it might affect your promotion and so on.

NM: So you would say there are lecturers that should have been promoted but because of their political leanings, they are not?

TR: I would say so because I am a professor and I am part of the promotion process.

NM: How do you view the evolution of AUKU throughout the years? Some people say it affects students, but it does affect lecturers in the way they express themselves and perhaps their reluctance to associate with certain groups. What do you think?

TR: The students were becoming less and less active from my perspective. At the time, the only active students were from IIUM, maybe some in UM and UKM. UTM used to be strong in Islamic student movement but something happened and it was shut down and there was no student movement. If I were to say, that student movements were not there at all, because students were fed with the idea of cari kerja and that sort of nonsense. If you nak cari kerja, no need to go to university, you take an apprenticeship and work somewhere.

On the evolution of AUKU, I don’t know what happened because I did not dwell on the subject, but I witnessed that the idea of thinking, of looking at the larger picture of things, the idea of contributing to society or nation, had disappeared slowly to the idea of writing of ideas on some papers on a small subtopic and getting high impact here and there.

NM: You mentioned about the students becoming less active, what about academics compared to the old days?

TR: Academics? What useful forum is there in the whole of academia? There’s none. Most of the lecturers just clock in and out of the university.

NM: What would you say are the factors leading to the inward-looking academics and university?

TR: Because they appointed useless Vice Chancellors, who are nobody, you can check their VC. In the past, we had leaders of academia who can give thoughts and their stand like Syed Hussein Alatas. But these current people at the sign of trouble, they are the first to lari. But when an academic gets an award, they will sit beside you.

Next, you appoint useless managers and ministers who are concerned about their position of power. Those who chase power are only focused on making sure they will be able to move to a higher ranking or to other universities. The university management is an aristocratic, empire building, self-preservation entity. It doesn’t cultivate the idea or nurture the idea of knowledge.

NM: Given your experience in universities in Malaysia and abroad, how do you see the academic freedom and university autonomy in Malaysia and elsewhere like the United States? Maybe you can share your experiences in public university at UTM and in private university at UCSI?

TR: I was in the U.S. for 6 years, 1980-1986, then I was educated in Edinburgh, Scotland for my PhD from 1992 to 1995 so I experienced it as an undergraduate student and a postgraduate student. When I was in the U.S., I was the Vice president of the Muslim Students Association and I was also the vice president of the Malaysian Students Association. We have been given budgets and offices in the university. When we need to organize events, we don’t have to ask for permission, we just inform. There was no Hal Ehwal Pelajar to say no, you just need to inform. Here in Malaysia if you want to invite Ramli Ibrahim, you need to ask permission from an ustaz. It’s really sad. In Malaysian private or public sama sahaja, the private university is a shadow of a shadow of a public university. The private university lagi tak berani because if they silap they can be shut down.

NM: Speaking of that, how do you perceive the relationship between academics, society and state? Because there are some views that academics especially those in IPTA ought to behave like civil servants, that they should be loyal to the government. But there are other views saying that they should contribute for the public good. What are your thoughts about that?

TR: Public universities now are 99% civil servants, not civil servants in that sense but more of the spirit of civil servants. For example, you can look into their website, are there any forums or discussions which are very critical? Now they have become complete civil servants, and now we have bodek-ism lecturers. There are those who have been appointed as professors who will not challenge the government and the dominant conservative narrative. Theoretically, IPTA is a statutory body, that’s why they can appoint anybody to be a professor but they misuse the power not to be a critical endeavour to move the society ahead, they will always wait for the minister to give instructions. The university management only talks about numbers, students but they don’t talk about the nation. To sum up, academia in Malaysia is basically for its own sake which is totally wrong because they are paid by the Malaysian public and it is wrong spiritually because knowledge is not for your own sake but it must be something that must be shared and spill out into the society. Our professors don’t read outside of their own field. And they are rewarded for that. Science professors don’t read philosophy, philosophy doesn’t read science. So you will not get anywhere.

NM: You have emphasized several times on the political posturing that is needed for career advancement. Do you feel like AUKU and its related acts like Tatatertib rules or Sedition Act affect the academics to behave in this way?

TR: I will tell you one thing, if suddenly you wake up tomorrow, there is no tatatertib, no Sedition Act or no AUKU, the university will still remain like that. For example, look at Kongres [Maruah] Melayu held at Stadium Malawati, how many universities and professors were there? That is already the tragedy of national destruction. That’s why I said that you guys are 40 years too late, you are talking about something that was very important 40 years ago. Right now, take away these things, lecturers will still be the same. They will not read books, because the KPI is already there unless you change the KPI. So contrary to what you may say about AUKU holding them back, I’d say it’s the psyche of the academics that have already changed 30 years ago. If you ask any professors what is the role of knowledge, what is the role of the university, you ask these people you would know for yourself.

NM: But our positions are not necessarily in contradiction. It means AUKU had has its effects, and now, even though you remove it, the impact is still there.

TR: Yes but the point here is that, you are predicating on the idea of AUKU, the VC is orang lama, trained in the idea of stupid KPI, dapat Dato Seri title, the obsession with university ranking, and these measurement nonsense, it’s still going to be the same playbook because it has been set. This is the “AUKU”, and the [old] AUKU is outdated.

NM: This is the new AUKU?

DTR: Yes, the New AUKU, nobody is going to tell you but this is what I saw throughout the 34 years in the academic world.

NM: It would be interesting that you pointed out the idea of the new AUKU, it would be good to ponder on it.

TR: Yeah I have never thought about that, but maybe I will write an article about it. I have written about how the university has lost its sense of direction but I never related it to the act of self-censorship. Self-censorship is totally prevalent in all of the countries. And if you want to end with the issue of Ramli Ibrahim, we were hitting hard from the civil society, not a bit from UTM. That’s how much they don’t care. If you want to ask for a million ringgit grant, you write a proposal to academic people like me. I say this practice of writing proposal [and to submit among academics] should stop. If you want a million ringgit grant, you have to face civil society people with some academics. And then they will ask questions i.e, What are the use [of the grant] for our society? At the moment, it is just a ‘club-only’ approach. This will be one of the things I would change.

 NM: So this is our last question for today, what do you think can be done to improve academic freedom in universities in Malaysia?

DTR: As I said, academic freedom is never the question, but it is the academic culture. It is the academic culture, I would use the [term] academic spirituality. How do you help others? How do you make something bigger than yourself? So that it would benefit all. Knowledge that should need to be recorded in books. Knowledge should be explained to the young, to others and many people. We need a change in the cultural-spiritual construct of knowledge vis-à-vis nation and world. We need to make use of technology. The technology is already 5G but the education culture is minus 3G. So we need to have the idea of a spiritual construct that goes beyond religion and identity politics so that we can think of working together as one world. But we are still teaching the students to work in an office with all the stupid accreditation. Our education is totally outdated and self-centred. That is why we are going nowhere and wasting billions of resources.

* 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 Higher Education Malaysia Association (HEYA) and Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM). This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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