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4 October 2023 (Wednesday)

Interview with Dr Sharifah Munirah Alatas: In Between the Politicization of University and the Production of Knowledge

Naratif Malaysia recently sat down with Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas, an academic at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Trained in History, Dr. Munirah’s interests are in geopolitics, foreign policy, education and socio-political reform in developing nations. In this article, Dr. Munirah shares her critique of the ‘unacademic’ academic. In addition, Dr. Munirah also highlights the problem of political interventions that influence academia, which subsequently shape our attitudes towards knowledge production.

NARATIF MALAYSIA (NM): How important is the idea of academic freedom to academics? Can academics still do their scholarly works even without subscribing to the idea of academic freedom?

SHARIFAH MUNIRAH ALATAS (SMA): There are a few things we need to be aware of before we can understand the concept of academic freedom. First, we should understand the meaning of “freedom” in academia. Second, we must be conscious of the relationship that academic freedom has with society. This relationship is the goal. Third, we should reflect on what life would be like without it, given that we live in a world dominated by rich, powerful, and corrupt elites in leadership.


SMA: The closest definition of “academic freedom” is freedom to express ideas without the risk of official interference or professional disadvantage. It is also about the right to have an opposing view.

Therefore, academic freedom involves the basic human right to interact physically and mentally. This is done in the form of intellectual discourse, via conferences, class discussions, seminars and scholarly publications. Many scholars also play the role of the public intellectual. They communicate ideas to the general public via media writings, public talks, and interviews.

The bottom line is, we are human because we are endowed by the Almighty, with the spiritual as well as the biological, i.e., soul and body. Academic freedom upholds this fundamental gift that defines what it means to be “human”.


SMA: Should academic freedom be applied to all academics? Of course. Rather, the real question to ask is, are academics ethical in utilizing such freedom, or do they abuse it? In a country like Malaysia, where education has been grossly politicized, we face issues of unethical academic practices and a loss of intellectual integrity in the higher education system, overlooked or sanctioned by the political system.

My response to these queries about academic freedom is premised on this first question, i.e., my observation of how academia in Malaysia has evolved over the decades, and the types of academics in existence today. Our education system has produced three kinds of academics.

The first kind are those who “toe the official line” and have become boring, bureaucratic, paper-pushers. They write and teach to fulfil university career requirements. They “do the right thing” to ensure their monthly salary, and a possible administrative position that gives them faculty or university recognition. They are quiet, do not “rock the boat” and remain largely isolated, while getting along with everyone because they pose no threat.

The second kind describes the majority. This group may be devoted to their role as educator. For lack of a better analogy, they function just as our teachers in the primary or secondary school system. However, in the Malaysian context, since they have a Ph.D., they aspire to be educators in the university system with lofty, but insincere ambitions.

These academics publish occasionally in scholarly journals. Those who publish widely seek predatory journals or engage in unethical academic practices to get published. They also avoid participating in international conferences of note, where ideas are rigorously critiqued. The reason could be insecurity, or they have kept themselves out of touch with current discourses in their academic field.

They teach, but it is my experience that, effective teaching requires keeping up with new research, novel theories and global debates. In the Malaysian context however, and especially in the traditional social science fields, such a pedagogical value system has yet to become second nature among university academics.

At the same time, they find themselves struggling to keep up with university requirements, to publish widely and conduct internationally-acclaimed research. These are the academics who may end up abandoning academia altogether, due to frustration and a sense of failure. Others may not want to do this, but instead connive in “politicking”. This is why there is so much toxicity in our public university system.

Among this second group, there are many whose primary objective is to move up the administrative ladder and be crowned Full Professor at all cost. Scholarly contribution to the field is secondary. Due to this attitude, the value of what they teach is also reduced. Students hardly learn anything new from such educators. This has social, political and economic ramifications for our society as a whole. 

The third kind is a rare find in Malaysia. This is an academic who is very much a “scholar”. This scholar is devoted to the discipline, is up to date on global trends in the global scholarly community, is critical, analytical and intellectually honest. This scholar has integrity and is willing to engage in academic debate for the sake of truth, even if it means embarrassment and ridicule. They publish well, in terms of quality not quantity.

The term “academic” no longer applies to the third group. This is the true “scholar”; devoted to teaching, research, writing, and public engagement. Promotion is secondary, although it is only human to expect a “reward for a job well done”.

Such a scholar is quick to realize his or her isolation in the rotten system, but nevertheless persists. This is because such a scholar understands the true meaning of academic integrity and commitment to society. This scholar also engages the community and is in touch with developments “on the ground”. They value their role as a public intellectual.

It is this scholar who has the most genuine voice in support of academic freedom. They remain at the fringes, marginalized by the majority in the university system, who choose to be politicized and engage in politically-expedient activities. The third kind of academic generates widespread envy and jealousy in universities, despite not being highly ranked in the university administrative system.

As public intellectuals, they address a wide array of developmental struggles faced by ordinary people. They avoid theorizing with big words and unintelligible concepts. They are polite and compassionate, but speak the truth. They connect with the public, with the masses.

One last point: not all academics are scholars, and not all scholars are confined to their field in academia.

NM: May legal constraints, such as AUKU, limit the real function of academics? How?

SMA: AUKU is one of a few impediments to academic freedom. The Aku Janji and the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act also prohibit academics from expressing themselves. Based on my earlier comments, these constraints have an impact on academic activity, depending on the intentions of those who complain about them. Type 1, 2 and 3 academics mentioned above have different opinions of AUKU and these other impediments. For me, type 3 is most affected by them.

Ultimately, if we want to reform higher education, we need to address more than these impediments, e.g., AUKU, and other authoritarian Acts. We need to address the combination of political interference and the general absence of morality that pervades our society. Legal constraints on academics must be seen in totality, i.e., they affect not only the academic community, but society in general.

Legal constraints put the fear of incarceration and punishment. These affect creative thinking. They also inhibit scholars from investigating the truth behind real problems facing society. With such constraints, it is not possible for scholars to weigh different causes and effects that are needed to address on-going problems in our society.

The AUKU of 1971 has compromised university governance. It inhibits the fundamental rights of students because it prevents them from engaging in various issues deemed “sensitive”. AUKU has given power to ethnocentric and politically arrogant authorities, to decide what is sensitive and what is threatening.

This does not only include attitudes about politics; they also permeate culture, identity, and the arts. The latest decision by a university to cancel Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s talk about cross-cultural dance, is an example. His unique contribution to the Malaysian arts and culture scene was unilaterally politicized by the university and deemed a “sensitive issue”. Without AUKU, students and academics would have been able to witness another aspect of cultural diversity in Malaysia, inter-civilizational dialogue and learn to appreciate our non-Islamic heritage. Ramli’s talk would have been a lesson on how it is possible to co-exist in evolved forms, amidst the richness of contemporary Malaysian society. It would have been a lesson in “acceptance” not “tolerance”.

AUKU and other impediments to academic freedom unilaterally decide what is sensitive or threatening, because these legal mechanisms are used to project only one identity, mainly the politically expedient version of what it means to be Malay, Malaysian and Muslim. This is wrong.   

NM: Does the production of knowledge actually require academic freedom?

SMA: If you want to produce useful knowledge, of course. Knowledge production should be about contributing to society, to improve our lives. Academic freedom facilitates this. Academic freedom is the freedom to inquire into any subject that arouses an academic’s intellectual curiosity. Second, freedom permits academics to present their findings or interpretations to their students and society. Third, freedom allows for the publication of these analyses without control or censorship, provided it is done ethically, supported with evidence and without offensive or incriminating language.

Higher learning institutions exist for the “common good” right? They are not established with the sole purpose to further the interests of the individual academic, Vice Chancellor, University Board of Governors, Prime Minister, political party, or a media conglomerate. Universities, and for that matter all educators are in the service of the general society, to educate our children to become conscientious citizens. Unfortunately, in Malaysia here is where the problem lies.

The common good depends on a free search for truth, as well as its free exposition. So, in answer to your question, knowledge production does indeed require academic freedom.

NM: Syed Husin Ali introduced the phrase of “ahli akademik menikus” in explaining a group of academics in Malaysia. Being an academic for more than three decades (correct me if i’m wrong), how true are his observations?

SMA: Yes, you are right about “more than three decades”, but I still refer to myself as a “student”. This is fundamental to being human; we do not know everything, and there are limits to how much we know. Our politicians should repeat this mantra more often!

I agree with Syed Husin Ali’s “ahli akademik menikus”, and I would further expand on the notion.

Many like myself who might use this term to describe most of our academics, attribute it to the servile, “budaya mengampu” that is so prevalent in our society. One would expect academics at our universities to “graduate” from this humiliating disposition, which really translates to deep intellectual insecurity. However, such a servile mentality is very much alive in our universities.

Many academics feel subordinate to a higher authority and serve without question. Some suffer in silence and are afraid to voice an alternative opinion. This is very unbecoming of academic culture, and very alive in Malaysian universities. The key problem here is that they are insecure in the knowledge they are supposed to acquire, as well as their inability in expressing innovative ideas coherently, while supporting them with facts. This is especially true in the social sciences.

Ideologically, they would rather be led than lead. This is easier. However, in terms of university administrative positions or career advancement, they rather lead, and will go to great lengths to achieve this. In this way, the ahli akademik menikus can achieve these heights easily through our system of patronage and cronyism.

One last point about this: any academic who is in academia for the wrong reasons will cheat their way through their career, and in Malaysia many get away with their tricks. However, when it comes to education, the impact on society is very serious. The damage done could be irreversible and will last for generations, as we are now experiencing. 

NM: Why is the term “kangkong,” as introduced by Syed Hussein Alatas, imaginative enough to capture the current condition of academics in Malaysia?

SMA: This is a colloquial, popular term that refers to academics who parade themselves as profound scholars, but who are, in fact intellectually hollow and mediocre. In this context, the term Profesor Kangkong is not flattering at all.

However, as we know, kangkong is a type of vegetable. It was mentioned significantly in Sejarah Melayu, during a diplomatic mission sent by the raja of Melaka to the Emperor of China, centuries ago.

Malay historical narratives around kangkong, can be interpreted as a helpful metaphor to symbolize strength, integrity, endurance and diplomatic skill of the Malay polity (kerajaan). When Syed Hussein Alatas combined the noun “kangkong” with professor, he created a new concept or symbol in our contemporary imagination.

Kangkong in the Malaysian higher education context projects additional meanings of inexpensive, easily available, and capable of sprouting up everywhere, effortlessly. “Profesor kangkong” is a creative construct to describe our higher education crisis, which includes the abundance of highly paid (and revered) professors of poor quality. The metaphor is very apt.

Profesor kangkong” is a distinctly Malaysian concept and accurately describes the decline in the quality of our universities. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the vegetable itself though!

NM: Are the world of activism and the world of academia two separate things or two things in common? How to describe that both are inseparable? Do the phrases “public intellectual”, “activist-scholar” or “public scholar” adequately capture the actual work of academics to live an academic life to the fullest?

SMA: This is a question about the fundamental role of academia. For me, academia is not only about providing knowledge for students and society through our research and publications, or solely within the confines of the university.

Academia is also about being involved with society, in some form or another. So, to be an academic “activist” or public intellectual merely means stepping out of your “theoretical world” and applying relevant ideas to society. I think it is the duty of every educator to be in touch with society and developments “on the ground”. They must be in touch with reality.

Many academics in our society neglect to do this. They hide behind pompous theories. Even if some do engage the public through media interviews and TV appearances, most do so only when a specific issue in the country becomes a popular news item. Once it dies down, we hear nothing from them.

Not everyone has the capacity, i.e., the writing or speaking skills to engage as a public intellectual. Having said that, I think most academics have sufficient training to “re-tool” themselves and develop these skills, provided there is genuine interest. After all, we in academia are part of our community, so we must engage.

In the social sciences for example, theories are useless unless applied to reality. For me, this means writing and speaking on matters that are of concern to the public. In Malaysia, we have an overwhelming number of problems with our leadership, so it is necessary for as many academics as possible to contribute to solving these issues. Civil society groups engage similarly. This “whole of society” approach is constructive because it reinforces our compassion for one another

NM: Conceptually, what is society? And to what extent should academics be involved in society? Should academics be concerned in all societal issues even if those issues raised are not relevant to their academic disciplines (field of study)?

SMA: This question is related to the previous one, about the public intellectual. In simple terms a society is a group of people who interact with and live among one another. This interaction is organized through various institutions, namely legal, educational, financial, economic, political, and social institutions. There are also norms which communities in a society conform to. These are unwritten rules of behavior.

A public intellectual, whether a physicist, engineer, art historian or political scientist has the desire to interact within society’s structures. So, if a quantum physicist for example sees how corruption is destroying our society, they will find a way to articulate the problem and recommend solutions. It does not mean that only a sociologist or political scientist can or should get involved. Everyone can, provided they are sincere and do the painful work of reading, thinking, and reflecting, in order to be in touch with reality.    

NM: Why did Syed Hussein Alatas often emphasize the significant role of intellectuals in society? Is the intellectual community higher (or more noble?) than the others?

SMA: I quote a passage from Syed Hussein Alatas’s book, Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977):

“An intellectual is a person who is engaged in thinking about ideas and non-material problems using the faculty of reason…. knowledge of a certain subject or the possession of a degree does not make a person an intellectual although these often coincide; there are many degree-holders and professors who do not engage in developing their field or trying to find the solution to specific problems within it. On the other hand, a person with no academic qualifications can be an intellectual if he utilizes his thinking capacity and possesses sufficient knowledge of his subject of interest” (pg. 8). 

That the intellectual community is “higher” or “more noble” is a serious misperception in our society.

Both our political elites and academics are to blame for this misperception. There are many among them who have big egos and are arrogant about their position in society. These are the bodoh sombong. They value hierarchy and thrive on public recognition but remain ignorant of their role in society. Our universities are heavily politicized as you know, so there is a tendency for academic staff to emulate the behavior of our political leaders.

Academics among us who do not subscribe to this are isolated or marginalized. Also, those of us who are sincere about public engagement invite criticism from others who may feel envious and resentful. This is probably because the intellectual plays a very difficult role of advancing their academic field as well as engaging with society. There is nothing glamorous about this. It is just plain hard work and commitment.

Envy and jealousy are typical Malaysian reactions. The tendency to condemn thinkers as “higher” or more “noble” is often meant to denigrate. On the other hand, those who genuinely look up to intellectuals should do so because of their ideas and not because of their position as full professors or as senior administrative officials in society.

The reality is a genuine intellectual who actively engages in society is often of humble character. My father is a very good example. The jealous, insecure, and disgruntled reject the intellectual community out of insecurity, nothing else.

NM: It is always said that the young generation is the hope of the nation. Observing our young academics today, what is the future of our country?

SMA: In theory, this is the normal trajectory of development. I have written and spoken about this on numerous occasions. However, I am pessimistic about the future of our nation. The younger generation has ideals, but I think they have been dealt an unfortunate hand by my generation of leaders.

For decades, our education quality has been on the decline. The crisis we are facing currently, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying socio-economic and political disasters, shows how badly the system has deteriorated.

Without going into details, the main problem from our schools up to the universities, is that there is too much political interference. Also, over the decades there has been less attention paid to teacher training. Other problems in schools such as the progressive decline in interaction between the ethnicities, growing religious extremism, segregation in canteens, etc. contribute to a regressive mindset among our children.

Of course, the home is important too, but many Malaysian families are too busy to pay attention. There are a host of other issues that we need to openly discuss, such as the NEP, NDP, etc. but corrupt and insincere politicians are in control.

This is the tragedy in Malaysia today. I blame leadership which has neglected our education and our children.  

* 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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