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Khoo Kay Kim and a reflection of our academia today

  • Any form of threat to academic freedom is a threat to nation-building.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Several weeks ago, I attended to the memorial of Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Khoo Kay Kim that was held in the University of Malaya and it gave me so much thoughts about our current academia.

I do not quite know Prof. Khoo personally, though we were some sorts of ex-colleague when I was working with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) many years ago where he was the commissioner. I first knew about Prof. Khoo from his work and contribution in Malaysian history and mainly on the issues related to nation building of the country.

Interesting we were then became colleagues again when I joined the University of Malaya as a teaching staff. I remembered in our very brief encounters each time, it was always about us sharing the same surname, Khoo. It is also very often that people asking me if I am related to Prof. Khoo.

On the day of his passing, a journalist wrote to me for some comments but I did not provide any. The reason being that, while I come across Prof. Khoo’s work briefly, but to be fair, I do not know him personally well enough to be able to say much and also academically. I am glad that I made it to the memorial, thanks to his son, Eddin Khoo for inviting me to be part of such an important event.

I must say there are times, when I do not agree with his thoughts but in this column, I would like to share some reflections on the amazing things that I found out about Prof. Khoo in a more personal manner from the sharing from his families and friends during the memorial – the side where we might not know. And also to relate it to the current situation of Malaysia’s academia.

First, I admire his passion about books and how he values books. In today’s academic world, books are no longer as valued as much as during the previous times. In the universities for instance, as we are caught with the ranking business, the value of books have to many extent decreased and it is apparent. This is because high-impact journals are now considered the benchmark of “intellectuality” of a scholar. Prof. Khoo as a historian and a social scientist in a broader term, respect the process of production of books, which has slowly forgotten especially among young academics and scholars.

Second, in every single writing of Prof. Khoo, he tried his best to put much research and thoughts and always making sure that the writing will be made public and accessible to the general public.

With the competitiveness of the academia that we have now, accessibility to knowledge has two sides of debates. One is the proponent for open-access method. Second is the one that requires us to pay high fee in order read the writings in high-impact journals. To make it worse, increasingly there are journals even in the context of Malaysia that requires us to pay in order just to publish. During the memorial, some of his friends and colleagues have shared that Prof. Khoo made every possible attempt to ensure his writings can be reach out to public, in another word, that is the role of the academic as in contribution to society.

In today’s universities, contribution to society is not the priority for many academic because it does not help them in their job in term of the key performance indicators. It receives low indicator in our overall performance of the year. The memorial of Prof. Khoo gave me so much thought as I recalled my intention to decide in joining the university is to contribute to society in term of knowledge, research as well as an educator.

But joining the university today has made me realize that to many extent, university works like another business, which is rather sad. While the Minister of Education, Dr. Maszlee Malik has emphasized to universities that while ranking is important, but it is equally important for the universities to also value humanity and to contribute in every way possible to contribute to society, the culture in the university has yet to change.

That brings to my third point. As a young academic who is constantly learning and yet caught in a complexity of the academia now, Prof. Khoo’s passion as an educator enlightened me and enriched me to value my work more. I remembered I wrote a column many years ago in an English news portal on, “Academic is not just there to teach”. As what envisages by Prof. Khoo, the roles of an academic are far more than just teaching, conducting research and writing academic papers. Until today, what I do enjoy being an academic is the ability to inspire a new generation of young people and the opportunity to be part of these young people’ lives.

During the memorial, many have shared how Prof. Khoo’s thoughts and comments at times, have invited controversies and public discourse. For me, such freedom of inquiry is crucial. A failure to defend dissenting voices places at risk the greatest avenue for the creation of new ideas beneficial for our country’s future. More importantly, any form of threat to academic freedom is a threat to nation-building as a whole. And as what I have concluded in my that column, “The job of an academic is not just to teach; it is also about making a nation.” I believe I have learned that from Prof. Khoo.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)

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