Friday, January 11, 2008

Professor Shamshul Amru Baharin of the National University of Malaysia.

I am quite prolific this month. I have too, because I know soon I will not be able to be connected again. Here is one person whom I greatly admired. I remember in 1975 reading Newsweek and this guy picture came out in the newsmaker section. He was then a graduate/undergraduate? student and the statement was made in Australia. As usual he was very vocal and he predicted then, which has come to pass, of the the clash of ideas between the elite and liberal Malay and the Islamic group. He is not far off but I admire him for that , I forgotten his name then and now he is a professor at that time, I remember a leather jacket now a suit how times have fly but the person is still the same, cutting edge ideas, brilliant to a fault!

Face to Face: Shamsul Amri Baharuddin

Posted by Raja Petra
Sunday, 06 January 2008
About 50 universities in the THES 2007 list of the top 200 don't use English as their medium of instruction. They use Japanese, Mandarin, Dutch, French, Spanish, German and Russian. In THES 2006 ranking, UKM and UM, both using Malay as their medium of instruction, were in the top 200.
Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob is a trained lawyer and Malaysian political commentator. He writes for numerous international newspapers and online journals as well as hosts Face to Face, an interview segment of Malaysian/regional issues and personalities hosted on Malaysia Today . He also serves as Foreign Correspondent for foreign news organisations.
Shamsul Amri Baharuddin is a professor of social anthropology and, formerly, Director [1999-2007], the Institute of the Malay World & Civilization (ATMA), and Founding Director [ Oct.2003 - Jan. 2007), Institute of Occidental Studies (IKON), and, currently, Founding Director [since Oct. 2007],- Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, (UKM). He is known among Malaysian academia and political pundits as a man who speaks his mind. Not one to mince his words, he is acknowledged as an Occidentalist par excellence among international circles. Face to Face asks the pointed questions to get his plain-spoken answers.

Q1. The issue of the use of the English language as a medium of instruction in Science and Maths is contentious again. Any wonder that our universities are not even ranked within the top 200 in the world ranking released by Times Higher Education Supplement (THES)? Care to comment?
I think we should separate the English language issue from the THES 2007 ranking.
About 50 universities in the THES 2007 list of the top 200 don't use English as their medium of instruction. They use Japanese, Mandarin, Dutch, French, Spanish, German and Russian. In THES 2006 ranking, UKM and UM, both using Malay as their medium of instruction, were in the top 200. So, I believe there are other reasons as to why these two Malaysian universities aren't in the top 200 of the THES 2007 list, certainly not because of the English language factor.
The recent public concern about the English language issue relates, most likely, directly to the general poor performance of our schoolchildren, especially, in the national stream schools, at the primary and secondary level. Some observers say that this is temporary. However, without doubt, education is still the single most important vehicle for Malaysians to achieve social mobility. Malaysian parents would be very concerned if their children don't perform hence they have a bleak future.
Q2. Mukhriz Mahathir pointed out that it is not the issue of learning English but in fact it is the pursuit to master the sciences and technology. Do you agree?
I don't agree. It's a totally misinformed opinion.
How has the Russian been able to send their astronauts to space? How has the French been able to send their satellites into space, one after another, for a decade? Both don't use English. In fact, ironically, we have had the help of both the Russian and the French, not from the English-speaking American (of NASA fame), in our space program.
It's a myth that scientific knowledge could be acquired and master only in English. I feel we all have been duped to believe that it is so.
Nonetheless, it is true that English has become a hegemonic global language of communication. Perhaps we should have taught English literature, or a selected social science or the arts subject to be fully taught in English. Lots more hope there.
Q3: Allegations of the apparent lack of meritocracy in local universities hint at the underlying racial tendentiousness. What is your view?
Since the late 1990s, meritocracy has been the main principle used to select new entrants to local universities.
The issue was not about meritocracy but about the extremely stiff competition to get into the 'elite' faculties, such as medicine and dentistry.
The fact that the predominantly bumiputera students from the exclusive pre-university classes have also been allocated places into these 'elite' faculties, along with those who have taken the more open STPM exams, invited the perception amongst disgruntled parents that there exists a 'selected' meritocracy into these 'elite' faculties. There has been no complaint about meritocracy not implemented in the selection of new entrants to local universities in other faculties.
It reflects more of the general public out-moded perception that if their children aren't doctors and dentists they can't make money. Ask the accountants, the IT grads and the lawyers, am sure they would disagree!
Q4: The Malaysians of non-Malay descent seem to want a re-write of the social contract agreed upon at the time of independence. Is this realistic or justified?
Theoretically, any legal contract could be rescinded if the parties involved agree.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on which side of the fence one belongs, our Federal Constitution, although it is a legal document, it is generally not perceived as such. It has been perceived a 'social contract' between the different ethnic groups in this country. This is due to the specific historical-structural circumstances involved in the construction of our Constitution.
If we were to change any part of it, it has to be done in the Parliament. It seems only the multi-ethnic BN could do this, currently enjoying an overwhelming majority in the Upper and Lower Houses of our Parliament. If the component parties within BN don't initiate it, nobody else could do it from outside, even how realistic or justified.
Q5: Delving into the issue of the definition of a Malay. Today it seems that many Yellow races, Caucasian races, or of Arab descent are accepted as a Malay. This is a peculiarity as far as the definition of race is concerned. Please elaborate…
The term Malay during the pre-colonial era was an inclusive category. Islam wasn't the main criteria. Embracing the Malay culture was central in the making of the Malay as a social category. Loyalty to the Raja (keRAJAan = polity of the RAJA) was another. Every Malay then has been the subject of the RAJA (a Sanskrit and not Arabic word). To be proficient in the Malay language was thought as another important element or identity indicator.
However, upon the arrival of the British, which, in turn, had introduced the Census in the 1870s, the term 'Malay and Other Natives' became exclusive. Indeed, for the purposes of labelling, every Malay was deemed to be a Mohammedan. If an Orang Asli were to be a Muslim, most likely he/she would be classified as a Malay, if not he/she remains an Orang Asli. We know of the great difference in terms of social position that exists today between these two groups.
Whether the term Malay is inclusive or exclusive isn't really significant. It is when being 'a Malay' entitles one to get economic advantage, political privilege and so on, I think, that's when the term Malay, and who they constitute, became contested. The issue may not be about Malay and not-Malay, it could also be what advantages come with being a Malay or non-Malay. The issue is broader than simply about ethnicity.

Q6: Has the right Honourable Prime Minister lived up to your expectations?
This is a totally subjective question which warrants a subjective answer. Hence I would like to take a comparative viewpoint that is open to contestation, and I welcome that.
In the first four years of Tun Mahathir as a prime minister he had his share of success and challenges. Our present Prime Minister has had his, too, in the last four years.
I don't expect very much from Tun Mahathir in his first four years as a Prime Minister then and so, too, from our present Prime Minister.
Others may have much more expectations than what I have. I respect that. However, we are entitled to our subjective opinions. There is no one standard measure, anyway.
Q7: The Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Razak appears to be in the forefront of the Rakyat's consciousness. The local broadsheets feature him regularly. Is this an implicit signal of Najib Razak's imminent rise as PM?
I don't think the Rakyat of Malaysia has much say about Datuk Seri Najib's future. It is the 2,500 delegates at the UMNO General Assembly who have the final say. If they endorse him as Deputy UMNO President in the next UMNO elections then he remains to be the Deputy Prime Minister.
However, whether Najib likes it or not, or Malaysians like it or not, the incumbent UMNO President-cum-Prime Minister has the final say. Tun Mahathir had four DPMs. So, what's new?
Q8: To your mind, is there any one ethnic group in Malaysia that can be deemed as a second-class citizen?
It's a perception issue, highly subjective and politically a highly-charged and contested category. Usually, it is the result of self-identification, justified or otherwise.
There are advantaged and disadvantaged groups in every ethnic category in this country. If the disadvantaged is perceived as a second-class citizen, then the spread is across ethnic.
Some may want to use 'the victimized group' not 'second-class citizen.' Name calling never ends!
Q9: The Malaysian Chinese abhor the Muslim-Malay led Government on a host of issues. Do you believe that this community has legitimate concerns or are they just ungrateful as alleged by UMNO leaders?
I always worry when we homogenise the highly divided ethnic groups in Malaysia. When we do that we are walking straight into a chauvinistic trap. It is too convenient and too easy to say that "the Malaysian Chinese abhor the Malay-Muslim led Government on a host of hot issues."
We do know that there as many Chinese who abhor and who enjoy the Malay-Muslim led Government. We also know that many Malays who themselves abhor the present Malay-Muslim-led BN government.
So, we do this question or argument takes is to? Indeed, into a cul-de-sac. But I am not denying that people have all sorts of grievances, justified or otherwise. Some expressed in ethnic idioms others not.
Q10: Has Anwar Ibrahim had any effect at all on the electoral mood? What message would you deliver to Anwar Ibrahim ahead of national elections?
Many observers, again depending on which side of the fence they belong, have judged Anwar Ibrahim either negatively or positively.
The negative viewpoint suggests that Anwar is only interested in achieving his ultimate personal ambition, that is, to become the Prime Minister of Malaysia. He is said to be doing everything he could to achieve it, including willing to destabilize the country so that he could present himself as the messiah who could bring back peace.
The positive viewpoint suggests that Anwar is a global statesman who has strong first-class global political network built before he joined the government, improved in leaps and bounds when he was in the government, and still keeps one. It is suggested that he could do a lot for the country if he is given the chance to be Malaysia's ambassador-at-large because his charm, network and also charisma would serve well for Malaysia, both on the economic and political front, especially, on the subject of Islam and the Muslims.
Whatever one thinks of him, Anwar has proven in the 1999 general elections that he can lead an alternative coalition of multi-ethnic political parties, appropriately named "Barisan Alternatif." Leading a "Barisan Bersih" for 2008 is not the same. Why not? In the public perception and idiom "where got politician bersih?"
Q11: What is your assessment for the next elections?
Taking into consideration a number of factors, it is most unlikely BN, as the incumbent ruling coalition, would lose its two-third majority in Dewan Rakyat. Admittedly, it is a bit tough for them to repeat the same record level of success that they enjoyed in 2004 elections this time around. Even some people in UMNO seemed to be talking about this.
Besides, the 'feel good' factor that was attributed to Abdullah Badawi isn't there anymore.
Q12: What is your hope for the new year of 2008?
Malaysia will continue to thrive economically but not without the expected difficulties in view of the fluctuating global economy and the slowing down of the troubled US economy. Without doubt, Malaysia is harvesting the fruit of its long-term investment in R&D to achieve a high level of economic development with science and technology as its knowledge base. Billions have been invested in the S&T-based R&D.
The other pillar of Malaysia's success thus far is its relative political stability. However, it has not seriously invested in the shirt- and long-term R&D of this fundamental aspect of its resilience and robust existence. The knowledge base of this endeavour is the social science, humanities and the arts.
The establishment of the National Science Council which has successfully identified the niche areas in S&T that, in turn, has contributed handsomely to our economic development should be matched with the setting up of a separate National Social Science Council. This Council would be able to list the niche areas in solidarity-making efforts beneficial to Malaysia and recommend generous funding to be given to each. This is one important method in creating a sustainable political stability in this country.
Malaysia has its National Economic Action Council (NEAC), why can't Malaysia have a National Integration Action Council (NIAC), asks someone?
My cheeky answer was perhaps Malaysia prefers the social scientists to continue to play the prescriptive "Bomba and Penyelamat" role instead of the more preventive role of the "sprinklers" that we now find in all the new buildings in Malaysia today!


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