Brand new era for Universiti Teknologi MARA?
By Azly Rahman
We must congratulate anyone who suggests that Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) be open to non-Bumiputeras; a good suggestion indeed and UiTM students and alumni should in fact be proud that such a statement of hope and reconciliation is made public.
More than merely ten percent should be allocated for Malaysians of other ethnic groups. This is indeed and excellent way to begin restructuring our public universities so that they can become truly global and embrace multiculturalism as a pillar of intellectual pride.
This will be in tune with the spirit of the Olympics in which there will be competition amongst the races. Way too long the Malay students in UiTM have been unfairly denied the opportunity to collaborate and cooperate with their peers from other ethnic groups in the learning process. They have been shackled in a place wherein the only ideology they know is one of “Ketuanan Melayu”; a concept that is a contradiction to what a university must aspire to become. The 3-4 years of their wonderful college experience should provide them the skills to work in a multicultural environment.
Many “Bumiputra-centric” institutions have opened up to non-Bumputras in order for us see a reflection of Malaysian-ness in diversity. Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and Maktab Rendah Sains MARA are examples. There is no need for the administrators and students of UiTM to be upset over such a proposal.
Restructure leadership first
But a larger issue is we must first begin restructuring the leadership of all our universities to reflect our desire for Malaysians to be truly Malaysian, “truly Asian” as the slogan goes.We must begin by closely reading the philosophy and principles of affirmative action and translate these into practice and to monitor its successes.
Let us do a better job with our policies of diversity and affirmative action in order to find a peaceful solution to the dead-end issues of quota, meritocracy, dread, mundaneness, blind nationalism, cemented racism, closing of doors to the best and the brightest, and a spectrum of malaise in our public universities. Our vice-chancellors must enculturalise what is good, new, and true that they have learned from their alma mater in foreign lands, so that they can govern institutions with purity of thought. Most of them are US, UK, and Australian-trained and well-versed in the issue of diversity and affirmative action.
The problem is that many get afflicted by philosophical amnesia as soon as we are back in Malaysia after many years of studying abroad and learning about what worked in advanced countries. We let ‘this old house we inhabit’ define the culture that will intellectually disable us. The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the US proclaimed its commitment to diversity in a statement issued on Sept 20, 1999:
“At UCLA, a public university located in one of the most heterogeneous regions in the world, diversity is an indispensable element of academic excellence. We are fundamentally committed to including and integrating within the campus community individuals from different groups as defined by such characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, and intellectual outlook.
“This commitment requires efforts to attract to the campus members of historically under-represented racial and ethnic groups. However, to create a rich academic experience and intellectual and cultural environment for everyone, we extend our concern beyond representation to genuine participation. Our commitment to diversity entails devising strategies and programmes to realise its benefits fully in education, research and service. This commitment inevitably means an openness to change – indeed, to transformation.”
Einstein once said that we cannot solve problems from the same plane on which the problem was created. We would be going around in circles, looking for the door to equality, justice and wisdom in our collective hope of creating a nation of peace-loving Malaysians. The New Economic Policy and the problem of race in governance of our universities must be framed within the Einsteinian maxim.
Need for multi-cultural audit
Many would like to see a diverse team of top leadership in our public universities. Chinese, Indian, Iban or Kadazan Malaysian students would like to see a vice-chancellor or a deputy vice-chancellor of their ethnicity. Our foreign students are not lured here to learn more sophisticated political-economic forms of racism.
A multi-cultural mix of top leadership will ensure a good sense of student belonging to the university and will show the world that not Malaysia will not only has a ‘world-class’ image but also practises a ‘world-wise’ educational policy. Universiti Teknologi MARA, in this case, can be made less Malay and more multi-cultural, so that we may teach students to view success not solely in racial terms but through a transcultural lens. This university will benefit intellectually and culturally from a good composition of multi-cultural leadership. A multi-cultural university senate may help ease the migraine of the quota mentality and will educate the top leadership on the need to evolve wisely thorough good affirmative action policies that are also in line with the teachings of the great religious traditions and humanistic educational philosophies.
Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and even atheism teach us to look at human beings not through the eyes of race alone. A good system will look at class as a basis of creating a just system that brings out humanism in all of us. The concept of democracy in education demands us to integrate all the diverse cultures so that each may learn to better respect, and next, help each other build better a vision of an ethical society.
Create a new varsity order
Borrowing the words of the American social reconstructionist George Counts, who wrote of the need to reconstruct society through education, I propose that we seriously engage in a national dialogue on the beauty of diversity in our public universities. It will be a guarantee that whatever we have set up as a multi-cultural nation will be achieved if we begin with this vision from the top of the ivory tower.
If we let the higher education minister restructure the culture and nature of who should constitute the leaders in the ivory towers, we will see discrimination being properly addressed and resolved. This may be painful in the beginning and the healing process will not be pleasant, but heal we all must. An all-Malay, all-Chinese or all-Indian educational institution will not educate well but will indoctrinate excellently.
Education in the broadest sense of the word should train people to become transcultural citizens able to build a strong foundation of radical multi-culturalism so that society will continue to be critical of governments that lie to their own people through policies that give new meaning to the colonialist policy of divide, conquer and rule.
How much have our universities progressed in the area of cross-cultural understanding? To what extent will our graduates be colour-blind in their work for national development and ultimately, for human liberation? How much do the universities perpetuate ethnocentrism through their hidden curriculum of excluding each other based on race matters? The 22-year policy of the previous administration has reached its ideological shelf-life.
The universities, especially UiTM need to evolve beyond the paradigm of blind nationalism which has never been healthy for this nation. We need the ‘sensor-fused’ technology of eliminating the vestiges of hyper-addictive neo-feudalistic educational pill we have been made to swallow en masse. We need to radically reconstruct the composition of our university leaders to put a stop to this conveyor belt of disabling and paralysing strategy of social reproduction.
Truly diverse administration
Monthly university senate meetings would be more vibrant if we choose to create a culture that will celebrate the diverse perspective that addresses the issue of class, the marginalised, and the criminalisation of the best and the brightest students. We may even discuss how to apply cutting-edge strategies to meet the diverse needs and intelligence of students. We will learn to become less suspicious of our ill-derived and acquired ultra-nationalistic sentiment. Our senate room will be a beautiful forum and may also in decades to come evolve somewhat like the “Conference of the Birds”, as the great Sufi Master Sheikh Fariduddin Attar would call it. In it, we will see the faculty seeking wisdom and truth rather than arguing their biases using politically-correct academic jargon.
We will see a beautiful senatorial culture in all universities. The common goal would be to celebrate humanism, not to dehumanise students and faculty through discriminatory policies. We will gradually free ourselves from the shackles of shallow politicking that has plagued our universities ever since Independence.
All voices will be heard and the voices of social justice and intellectual freedom will be the most celebrated. We can become like America and its insistence on diversity in its universities. Walk into a good American university and you will see a diverse faculty – white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander – all appointed on merit.
We can embrace such multi-culturalism and trumpet to the world how we truly value diversity. This will add more meaning to the idea of a truly world-class Malaysian university. Our university senators will spend more time discussing the philosophical and transcultural foundations of university education, rather than argue tediously over this or that quota and then go home scheming against one another and using their intelligence for less noble purposes.
UiTM will do even better
Let the rakyat insist on the diverse composition of our university leadership. Let us see which Malaysian university will embrace this idea of projecting a ‘world-class’ and ‘world-wise’ university. After all, aren’t we supposed to be a world model in racial harmony? Let us then quickly put an end to racial segregation in our ivory towers.
Let UiTM pave the way to not only prove that change is not only pleasurable, but also inevitable. As an educator who also had the excellent opportunity to be part of UiTM first as a student and part-time faculty albeit briefly in both instances ages ago, I truly believe that Malay students will be all the more enriched with all the races pursuing knowledge not necessarily to compete with one another, but to collaborate in the spirit of diversity and multiculturalism.
For too long UiTM has been dubbed a “universiti untuk Melayu sahaja” (a university for Malays only). It is time to create a new image. From an educational philosophy and psychology point of view, the current image is a misrepresentation. Ultimately it is the students themselves that will continue to be shortchanged. This is a form of oppression and structural violence on the Malay mind; especially when these same bright young minds are also subjected to mind-controlling programs such those created by The Biro Tata Negara and shoved into the brains of the participants. Who benefits from all these?
To UiTM alumni and faculty of whom are my best of friends and colleagues, do enlighten the students with the fact that to succeed in this globalized world of opportunities, one must embrace positive change and be pragmatic about shifting circumstances. Our job is to suggest the best for the leaders of the future. We cannot settle for anything less for the bright, young minds called Malaysians. We must create a robust multicultural environment to affect positive changes for us and our students.
To UiTM students known to be creative, street-smart, and good problem-solvers, there is a bigger world outside of UiTM that awaits those who are world-wise. If education is a gentle profession that promises progress and prosperity, you will not be victimized in your never-ending journey for knowledge and wisdom. Demand your university to provide you with a multicultural environment in order to have a better and rewarding university experience. Challenge yourself to be highly proficient not only in English but in Bahasa Malaysia and other languages. You do not live in a cocoon. You are not to be blamed for the environment created for you; one created for political reasons that no longer have the appeal nor the educational logic.
Universities the world over are taking pride in how multicultural and global their campuses are, making sure that diversity and affirmative action becomes the culture. In the United States, parents want to send their sons and daughters to colleges that have a truly diverse population. The key word is “global education and international experience”.
Universiti Teknologi MARA will have a brighter future with this new vision of multiculturalism.
Good luck in your Olympics of the mind, body, and spirit. My best wishes goes to the students of UiTM who are missing a major component of their college experience.
To help the Malays, set them free. This is the first ray of light for the dawn of this new era