RECENT statements by scientist Dr Wan Ardatul Amani Wan Salim have caused quite a stir.
Years ago, Wan Ardatul – more popularly known as “Dr Amani” – whose background is in electrical and biological engineering, led a team of 28 scientists, technologists and engineers on a NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) astrobiology project focused on testing how living cells respond to no-gravity environments.
Although doing well in America, she opted to come home to Malaysia to do her best to contribute to her homeland.
Sadly, some years later, it turns out her journey is not going so well.
Dr Amani has basically come out to say that the process of getting government research funding in Malaysia is beset with patronage networks, red tape, and a feudal mentality that emphasises seniority over meritocracy.
I suppose we should not be surprised, given that those same problems describe Malaysian politics and government as a whole quite well.
Dr Amani did not mince her words when describing public universities as essentially being run by dusty mandarins who appear to be more interested in form than substance, and that these same mandarins determine who gets funded and who doesn’t.
In the whole frustrating interview with Dr Amani, one issue that stood out in particular was the manner in which universities have become obsessed with rankings.
In true “smart” Malaysian fashion, universities have figured out how to game the system.
It’s not a very complicated process. You figure out the indices that inform the rankings, and then you just redirect all your efforts and resources to scoring well on those indices.
Should these indices be well chosen and well designed, perhaps all would be well and good.
As it is however, this seems far from the case.
The recent article about Dr Amani also pointed out that Malaysian researchers are estimated to have published 50,000 research papers to date, higher than their regional counterparts. This accounts for the rapid rise of many Malaysian universities in global rankings.
The same article however also quotes QS, a global education consultancy, which said that many of those 50,000 papers constituted unproductive research with little industrial or real life use, despite an increase in ranking.
It feels like this last comment really hit home. It will come as no surprise by now that more Malaysian institutions have decided not to care what is on the inside and how “useless” it is, as long as the outside “looks good”.
It is however particularly distressing that this is happening at the highest institutions of learning in our nation. If universities cannot set an example with regards to the integrity and purity of intellectual pursuit, then this rot can only be expected to spread from the top down.
I have met people who were held back year after year from completing their PhDs, even after they had completed all the requirements, simply because a PhD student that had not graduated could still be called upon to write papers for the department – free labour, in other words.
This in turn stemmed from the extreme pressure from above to keep publishing papers – no matter the quality – so that the university would continue to rise in rankings.
To some, this was the only thing that mattered.
For a long time, our universities were shackled by shameful adherence to the will of political masters. This stunted intellectual growth, and put a big chunk of academia closer to lapdogs than to intellectual titans.
It may still be too early to tell whether this culture persists under the new government, but if Dr Amani is to be believed, the obsession of form over substance appears to have remained.
Even as the debate about the degree to which meritocracy should inform university admissions continues, there should be no doubt that universities themselves must be the one place in which the meritocracy of ideas reigns supreme.
This is not to advocate some blind and hateful disdain of all seniors and authority; far from it. This is only to say that if only seniority and feudalism is allowed to determine the direction of our universities, then Malaysia will always be stuck as an intellectually third rate country – no matter what the rankings say.
The only way to bring about genuine improvement in Malaysian universities is to truly make them a free marketplace of ideas.
Unbridled intellectual exploration must not only be allowed, it must be encouraged. Research funds should be given based on merit alone, with little regard if any to seniority, bureaucracy, and patronage networks.
Only then will Malaysia’s true potential be unleashed, and the best, globally competitive, ideas emerge from our highest institutions of learning.
Surely that is the end goal we can be truly proud of, more so than some arbitrary rank built on a house of cards.
NATHANIEL TAN is director of media and communications at Emir Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centred on principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.