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Why there is no academic freedom in Malaysia

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 9 October 2015


The Malaysian Government is trying to develop the country into an education hub. Most universities seek awards of excellence and to get their institutions into the rankings.

However, even with these aspirations, Malaysia's overall rankings have been slipping over the last decade, while many other universities within the region have been rising dramatically.

As a consequence Malaysian universities have been open to both domestic and international criticism, which has often resulted in successive ministers of education defend their standing.

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The Government is pursuing new reforms and just recently released the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 with much fanfare. However something conspicuously absent from these proposed reforms is more academic freedom.

Academic freedom of expression is extremely low in Malaysia.

There are two parts to the concept. The first is about institutional freedom where a university should be autonomous, with full accountability, where the university administration is free to make independent decisions about mission, governance, hiring of academic leaders, academic and non-academic staff, selecting students, and introducing new programs and courses.

The second aspect is individual academic freedom, where there is a climate promoting freedom to teach what an academic thinks is right, freedom of expression within the public domain on issues, freedom to associate with others, with integrity.

In Malaysian public universities today, both staff and students are formally forbidden, except with permission from their respective vice chancellors to express opinions publicly, write about, or organize or participate in forums about politics, religion (particularly Islam), and education. They are not allowed to criticize their own institutions.

The ministry has given directives that that no staff should talk to the media on sensitive issues without permission. This ban does not just include the areas mentioned above, but also environmental issues like haze. The Malaysian Bar Association claims that this directive breaches Section 10 of the Malaysian Constitution guaranteeing free speech.

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In addition to the formal directives, informal bans exist on research and discussion about ethnic conflict and local corruption, especially if research findings might raise questions about government policy.

Sanctions for violating these rules and norms range from rebukes from administrators, to the loss or jobs through the non-renewal of work contracts, to prosecution in the court system through sedition laws, etc. The use of teaching contracts is particularly powerful in curbing free speech of academics, where academics fear they will not get extensions if they don't carry favour with administrators.

Malaysian academics even need permission from the vice chancellor to attend any conference and travel outside their own state within Malaysia.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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