Commentary by Mustafa K. Anuar
THE reported pressure on a deputy rector of Raub Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) branch to resign from his post after leading a study tour to the headquarters of an opposition party in December 2019 should concern not only its students, but also those who cherish academic freedom and integrity.
The visit to the DAP headquarters was apparently part of the academic activities meant for political science students of lecturer Che Hamdan Che Mohd Razali to be familiar with the national political landscape, which should be a non-issue from a standpoint of holistic education.
If it’s true that there is unhappiness among certain quarters over this matter slightly more than a year after it happened, it suggests that there are people who are dead set against the so-called anti-Malay DAP, which is a legitimate opposition party.
But this case also indicates that a number of people are apparently uncomfortable with, lo and behold, the idea of academic freedom and open-mindedness in a university setting.
This also shows that students may not be able to get the full length and breadth of an academic discipline if there’s an overarching political philosophy that forbids differing ideas or perspectives.
It’s akin to a mindset that only allows art students to use black and white in their artwork – and not to be also familiar with the whole colour spectrum even though there are students who are inquisitive about a world beyond the black and white.
Incidentally, you don’t go to a university just to get a blinkered view of the richly diverse world.
And yet there’s a hue and cry not too long ago among university administrators nationwide that their students lack critical thinking and thus, become less “marketable” for the industry, so much so a course called critical thinking has been prioritised for students!
In other words, academic and intellectual development in a university can be stunted by myopic academics and administrators as well.
Having said that, critics should not readily and joyfully hurl brickbats at this particular university if it’s true that there was pressure on the academic to resign. This is because the supposed problem is a microcosm of the academic landscape and a political environment that discourages, if not prohibits, dissent.
For instance, the very existence of the powerful student affairs department in universities is testimony to the desire of the powers-that-be to control students.
It is through this department that universities monitor all the activities of students even to the point of specifying the size and content of placards used during student elections. Additionally, the department would largely determine topics of forums and speakers who are allowed to be invited from outside campus.
A curious and independent mind would obviously find this environment suffocating and mind-boggling.
And just look at how nervous the university administrators become when opposition-leaning students gain more seats in a campus election that should be freer than political elections held outside of universities.
Truth be told, a lack of critical faculty among students largely mirrors the inability or refusal of certain academics to appreciate the importance of freedom of ideas in universities.
You don’t need to have a PhD to understand why a lack of academic freedom and freedom of expression in the country adversely impacts intellectual development and democratic practices.
Making visits to various political parties from both sides of the political divide is surely a step forward towards broadening one’s mind.