Chow Kum Hor: Historians, Intellectuals, and Politics Do Not Mix In Malaysia

Roundup: Talking About History

Criticise the Government and face the music. That's the perception formed by some about academic staff who freely express anti-establishment views.

This view gained renewed currency with the controversies over the departures of University of Malaya's Dr Edmund Terrence Gomez and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Prof Dr P. Ramasamy.
A classic example is Dr Syed Husin Ali, the former UM sociology and anthropology professor who was arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1974 after taking part in demonstrations on the plight of landless
farmers in Baling.

Five years after his release, Syed Husin left academia for politics, where he rose to become Parti Rakyat Malaysia president. He is now Parti Keadilan Nasional deputy president.

"There is a historical basis to why some people think that the Government does not enjoy a good relationship with a certain segment of university staff," says historian Prof Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim.

In 1975, the University and University Colleges Act was amended, giving vice-chancellors more powers to check communist and socialist elements in the campuses.

But these days, how extensively - if at all - has academic freedom been curtailed? Do the Gomez and Ramasamy cases suggest an "unseen hand" gagging the 17 public universities and university colleges in the country?

"Not if you are involved in genuine academic pursuit," says Khoo. "The problem only arises when one gets involved in partisan politics."

He recalls the 1970s when he spoke at UM's Dewan Tunku Chancellor - the Great Hall as it was known then - about the Baling farmers. Only politically-inclined speakers, such as Syed Husin, were taken in the subsequent ISA swoop, while the non-partisans, such as Khoo, were spared.

Former Education Ministry director-general Tan Sri Murad Mohd Noor attributes the "rift" to a failure to see each other's point of view. "Sometimes, academicians want to change society according to their beliefs. If they do not achieve that, they say there is no academic freedom. But they forget that universities are funded by the public."

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