Opinion

Designed to make us free

JAN 4 — Upon returning from the New Year’s countdown, the last thing I expected to read was news of a clash between the police and the student body that decided to hold a sit-in outside Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI). The latter did so to champion academic freedom.

The result of that clash is a terrible way to start the year. The reaction of a just government should always be measured and proportional to the incident at hand — even if it’s done in the name of security. That did not seem to be the case in Tanjung Malim. It was way out of line and uncalled for. 

It bordered on paranoia. 

The numbers don’t add up. Why on earth do we need the police to demand the dispersal of a sit-in demonstration that we all know is temporary? These are students and their most lethal weapons are probably flashlights and an amplifier. I don’t think that will cause anybody to wet his/her pants.

They weren’t asking for a coup d’état. The authorities should have provided the students with a space where they could scream their lungs out and when it’s over, shake hands. They can then all go back to whatever it is they do to celebrate the dawn of a new year. And we can all read about the weather the next morning. Apparently that’s rocket science!

The truth is that it was not the students that the authorities (or whoever they represent) were so afraid of. It is the idea of academic freedom that somewhat scares them, I think.

The logic goes that if there aren’t regulations in place to control what the campuses can teach, publish or say, then the unfettered freedom would prevail and anarchy will soon descend. I’m sorry to burst the bubble, but there’s a problem with that. Absolute academic freedom is not possible, even if every restrictive law is rolled back. 

The limit of academic freedom is one’s own stupidity. The academic arena is not a place for a dead sport. It’s a circus of opinions and only the strongest ideas survive. If anybody has the guts to throw a view out there, be my guest! But he/she has to prepare for the scrutiny of his/her peers that will soon ensue. If they think the idea is rubbish, they won’t hesitate to say so, albeit in a very refined or possibly boring manner — like you know… published journals. 

Our universities are supposed to be fertile ground of “higher learning.” Have we ever asked what is it that is “higher” in our higher education? It is understanding that the world is not a homogenous place and that a prerequisite to an educated society is one that can suspend its own judgment to listen to differing views.

If we still don’t agree, then we can all retreat to our favourite mamak stalls and bitch about it without engaging in a fistfight. Should professors be allowed to superimpose their own views in their teaching? It would be academically imprudent, but why not? We do not attend universities to kiss their asses. We go there to engage, on their own turf if need be! That is the sort of graduates we should be producing. 

I just want to end by saying that I took a class at my university pertaining to the Palestine-Israel Conflict. It was a class of 300 students. If there were an international quagmire that sends zealous passions off the roof, this would be it!

My professor confessed that at the beginning of the semester he had to meet the Dean to discuss options in the event that violence were to break out in the lecture halls. They considered stationing campus security details… just in case. But they didn’t do it. And it wasn’t a comfortable class. People argued — with passion. But you know what’s beautiful about that class? 

When someone spoke, everybody listened. There wasn’t any violence either. 

Free speech can at times hurt! But freedom of speech, in which academic freedom is a subset, is not meant to protect the things we like to hear. It’s there to ensure we hear the things we hate. And neither is it designed to make us comfortable. 

It is designed to make us free. 

* Ang Jian Wei’s thoughts are currently with those who were physically injured in Tanjung Malim. Though it’s a blemished start, he wishes everyone a Happy New Year. He blogs at lowfatketupat.com

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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