April 11, 2002

Malaysian academics uneasy about oath

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - Close to a million civil servants in Malaysia are required to sign a new pledge of loyalty, but some academics at public universities are privately grumbling that it could infringe on their academic freedom.
The pledge, which civil servants are required to make either privately or in oath-taking ceremonies across the country, is an oath of loyalty to king, country and government. By March 31, nearly all academics along with university staff had signed the pledge. Undergraduates at public universities are also supposed to make a loyalty pledge by the time the new academic session begins next month.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself signed the Aku Janji (I Pledge), a letter promising the undertaking of good conduct, before Malaysia's king on March 6. He later witnessed his cabinet ministers and civil servants signing the pledge. The pledge also requires signatories to heed all existing and future directives and orders. An explanatory note in a circular on the pledge reads: "An officer who goes against or criticizes a government policy will undermine the integrity and stability of the civil service as a whole."
This has caused some fidgeting among some civil servants, university people and critics, who say that asking civil servants to pledge loyalty to the government of the day is quite different from pledging loyalty to king and country.
Most civil servants have dutifully complied, some viewing it as just another bureaucratic requirement. But one academic at a public university, Rosli Omar, raised eyebrows with his detailed public critique of the requirement.
"Any pledge of loyalty to any interested party, including an Oath of Loyalty to any government, is very much against the academic function of pursuing knowledge in a free, non-partisan way, and without personal objectives in mind," he wrote. "To the best of my knowledge, there is no government that practices democracy that compels academics to declare loyalty to it, especially loyalty to anything that will only emerge in the future."
Rosli also observed that laws and regulations had in the past been imposed upon academics. "Now, through the pledge, we are to agree to the imposition. We are supposed to agree to go against what it means to be an academic," he lamented. "We are supposed to agree never to question anything that the government, our superiors, tell us, against our expertise that might tell us otherwise, against our conscience."
The concern that the pledge may lead to potential curbs on independent, critical thinking has also roiled others. "We are at the end of our tether," said a frustrated professor, who had just signed the pledge. "They [the authorities] can do anything they like. I have given up trying to guess their motives."
She says that academics at her university had to sign the single-page pledge "certificates", which they could keep, while photocopies were retained by the university. "We must be the only bunch of academics in the world to be treated as civil servants," she grumbled.
She says some academics think the pledge is harmless and sign without a thought, and others are habitually obedient no matter what the order, while a small minority are taking the pledge issue seriously and feel uneasy. One professor at a local university, who requested anonymity, said that at his university, "the whole exercise is not taken seriously by the academic staff". He added, "Many are just going through the motions" in signing the pledge.
Still, the academic staff associations at two universities have issued a sample letter for academics who are uneasy about the pledge. The letter states that they are signing the pledge under duress for economic reasons - that is, they fear losing their jobs if they refuse to sign.
The University of Malaya Academic Staff Association in a statement last month called for the withdrawal of the directive requiring civil servants to sign the pledge. The pledge, the association adds, should be "rewritten to take into consideration matters that violate basic individual rights, staff union rights, and the right to academic freedom".
Academics and students say they already have to contend with the stifling Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which forbids involvement in politics. Last year, dozens of university lecturers allegedly engaging in anti-government activities were given a warning, transferred or fired.
Civil servants were said to be divided over the government's handling of the September 1998 ouster of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, which sparked the reformasi movement. Last year, soon after 10 reformasi activists were detained under the Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial, two student activists were detained under the same law - though they were both later released.
The student associations in a string of public universities are controlled by groups said to be sympathetic to the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). PAS made inroads during the 1999 general election, though its star has waned somewhat since the September 11 attacks in the United States.
But government officials say the academics' worries about the pledge undermining their independence are unfounded. The Aku Janji pledge is also "a pact between students and their respective universities that they will concentrate and focus on their studies", explained the director of the Higher Education Department in the Education Ministry, Dr Hassan Said, in a newspaper interview published recently.
"Most of the items on the agreement are derived from the UUCA to reaffirm their roles as students," he said. "The main idea behind the contract is that they spend time on their studies and not on unproductive activities. It will help govern their conduct."
Academic Rosli, however, noted that Mahathir himself has often said that Islamic civilization has regressed because of the lack of a spirit of inquiry. "But this open-mindedness and spirit of inquiry require an environment where one is free to discuss and question even those in authority," he added.
Rosli argued that academics should be pledging a different kind of loyalty - to academic attitude: "I pledge to be loyal to the spirit of open-mindedness, of knowledge pursued in the name of searching for truth without prejudice, without personal interests."