Sunday, September 07, 2014

Silencing Azmi curbs intellectual discourse - an opinion by Terence Gomez

 Silencing Azmi curbs intellectual discourse

COMMENT When Azmi Sharom, associate professor of Law at the Universiti Malaya, was charged under Malaysia's Sedition Act for providing a legal opinion on a constitutional matter, it shocked the academic community.

It was particularly alarming to academics as it is now well acknowledged that the Sedition Act is an obsolete relic of British colonial rule, introduced to curb dissent. Even Prime Minister Najib Razak had expressed the view, about two years ago, that this Act had to be repealed.

Najib's government is now preparing a National Harmony Bill to replace this Act. Azmi was, however, one of a number of people, many of them politicians in opposition parties, to be charged under this Act in the recent past.

The issue that Azmi (right) had commented on was in response to the question as to how the next Selangor menteri besar should be selected. Azmi's views were published in the online portal of The Malay Mail.

He is quoted as saying two things in this article: "You don't want a repeat of that, where a secret meeting took place" and "I think what happened in Perak was legally wrong. The best thing to do (in Selangor) is do it as legally and transparently as possible."

It was baffling that these opinions were viewed as being seditious. In fact, the Bar Council, in its statement on Azmi's case, is quoted as saying that his comments "cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute sedition". Azmi, in response to this charge, has argued that his "statements were based on established case laws and democratic principles" and that he views this charge against him as "a blow to academic freedom and the freedom of expression".

Like the Bar Council, many have viewed this sedition charge as perplexing. It is not when we consider that this charge has been proffered against Azmi. His statement on the Selangor political crisis and his response to the charge against him are a reflection of Azmi's now long-recognised willingness to talk the talk of justice.

Through his regular - and popular - column in The Star, to which he has been contributing over the past few years, Azmi has been providing, fearlessly, critical feedback on major flaws in society, the economy, academia and the legal system. The overriding impression one gets is that this charge is a blatant attempt to curb dissent and in Azmi's case, a punitive act to silence critics.

Browbeat academics into obedience

The irony of this charge against Azmi is that the government has been persistently calling on academics to ensure their research is deployed so as to have an impact on society. In fact, government funding for research comes with the strict stipulation that the findings must contribute to the betterment of society.

Meanwhile, in the public domain, academics have now long been subjected to much criticism of their inadequate contribution to society as public intellectuals. A growing lament, and one apparently indicative of declining academic standards in Malaysian universities, is this: where have all the public intellectuals gone? With this sedition charge against Azmi, the government is clear on one thing: academic feedback is warranted, but not on matters politic, specifically those that suggest the need for reforms.

This act against Azmi will compel academics to rethink any aspiring notions they may have entertained to be in the forefront of intellectual discourse about ways and means to solve the problems that ail the Malaysian economy and society.

The challenge to academics - and the general public if they value the need to have intellectually vibrant tertiary institutions - is to call on the government to stop what amounts to an attempt to intimidate academics into obedience, an act that will only serve to further undermine the credibility of Malaysian universities.

A large number of academics, about 300 of them from across Malaysia, have publicly stood by Azmi, a clear collective commitment of their resistance to any attempt to stifle academic freedom and to browbeat university faculty into silence.

There are other crucial reasons why the government should revoke this charge against Azmi. An obvious repercussion of this act is that it will diminish, even subvert, critical discourses in the universities which can seriously hamper high quality scholarship. This will, in turn, undermine meaningful tutelage which can have a significant bearing on the quality of graduates Malaysian universities now produce, an issue already viewed with much concern.

The government cannot call on academics to produce graduates with the capacity to think creatively, a clear project of educational empowerment, while stifling academic freedom.

TERENCE GOMEZ is professor of Political Economy at the Faculty of Economics; Administration, Universiti Malaya.

Malaysiakini, 7/9/2014,  Silencing Azmi curbs intellectual discourse

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