Academic Freedom and Inconvenient Truths

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle recently with regard to the nature of Prof Datuk Dr Redzuan Othman leaving UM: was he asked to leave? Did he resign? Was it really a matter of his contract running out?

Underlying all this is reference to recent polls run by UMCEDEL, one of which asserted that support for the Pakatan Rakyat has increased, while support for the ruling Barisan Nasional has remained stagnant.

Of course, one can dispute such findings, which is well within the realm of healthy political debate. And the Ministry of Education has come out to say that the Professor is being let go due to his expiring tenure, rather than due to any intent at censoring or punishing the latter for his work with UMCEDEL.

We can dispute the technicalities, and we can also dispute whether the Professor deserves the opprobrium for the methodological shortcomings of UMCEDEL’s work.

My comment here goes towards the nature of academic freedom. While we may dispute the UMCEDEL’s methodology and conclusions, we should allow space for interlocutors such as UMCEDEL to inject a more evidence-based approach to Malaysian politics and public policy. We might not always agree with the conclusions or their approach, but we should respect the work of academics striving to improve the quality of public debate in Malaysia. It is always tempting to shoot the messenger, rather than deal with inconvenient truths.

Also, if what has befallen the professor is indeed, as suspected by some parties, an attempt to shut him up, then it certainly goes counter to the “political transformation” being touted by the Prime Minister. Political transformation entails a willingness to debate; a tolerance for diversity of views; a readiness to marshal facts and data to achieve one’s aims.

It will be the continued intent of the political opposition in Malaysia to paint the Prime Minister’s transformation efforts as mere lip service, superficial and insincere. If the Professor’s travails are indeed political in nature, then it marks yet another discordance in the Prime Minister’s stated agenda for transformation.

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