Once again Maszlee Malik is at the center of attention with his statement in a forum that the two ministries related to education should be helmed by academics as they would best understand the true spirit of teaching, learning and knowledge.
Once again, the media centers on issues deemed controversial when it comes to Maszlee, like zeroing in on black shoes and swimming pools or breakfast for rich children.
I do not mean to contradict Maszlee in this article but only to present what I know of what academics in Malaysia are, how they are trained and what they are NOT GOOD at.
For the record, I wish to state unequivocally that I thought Maszlee was an excellent Minister of Education. He had the energy, foresight, passion and zeal to change education from its mediocre state to one that we all can be proud of.
Maszlee also had the courage, spirit and will at 100% and no question about that. What he lacked was political savvy. What he lacked was a good team that would engage better with the press as his team was all young people inexperienced in realpolitik.
What he lacked was public diplomacy with civil society and interest groups. Those are not faults, but simply inexperience.
The thing that really brought him down was not the negative media or the kurang ajar voice of civil society but the power of Tun M and PPBM politics.
It was reported that Maszlee, through his sincerity to protect public interest in spending, had taken on a company being a crony of the most powerful man in the country at that time.
Before his resignation, I had heard someone snickered in a conversation that Maszlee’s time was up because he had stepped on the Great White Shark’s tail in his sincerity and passion for truth and honesty.
Again, I repeat, I thought Maszlee was an excellent minister for that portfolio. But having said that, I do not agree with him that academics would make better ministers of education or higher education or ministers of anything at all.
But of course, this does not apply to all academics, just 99.99% of them.
Why am I being hard on academics of which I am also a part of? Simple. I know Malaysian academics from my 34 years of watching them not say anything in many of the issues that plagued this nation for the last 24 years.
Even Anwar himself had frowned during the reformasi when he asked where the academics and champions of social conscience were?
The incident of closing of the gates and switching off the electricity at UM and UIAM should be the answer to my title above. I will elaborate.
After 34 years of academia and examining PhD candidates, I have come to an epiphany of understanding.
The posts of ministers are for politicians and they do not have to be “experts” in any discipline.
Academics are trained in silos. After they get their PhD, for the next 30 years of their careers, most of them either remain in these silos or strengthen them by reinforcing the prison that they are in.
In any promotion exercise to the post of Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor or Professor, to my one question about readings on other fields or areas of concerns, almost all do not present a credible answer.
Next, on questions about how life would change 50 years in the future and how their discipline could help in achieving a better outlook, again either a blank look or some answers rambling about their own specific fields and specific area of studies.
Have all Malaysians noticed how many children books are written by professors? Have Malaysians noticed how many books written by academics to educate the public in layman terms about how we as a nation can change into something better?
I have read books by scientists Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawkins about how the new ideas of science would impact the very way we live.
The most influential books I have read in my university days were by Alvin Tofler titled Future Shock and the other one was Power Shift.
Tofler weaved a massive amount of information on science, politics, economics and environment to paint a picture of a new world. Toffler was a journalist who read many books. He was not an academic, never even had a PhD.
Can our academics do the same? I think 99.99% of them can’t think beyond their own fields.
So, to put it bluntly, how can academics helm any ministry if, firstly, they don’t have reading knowledge of multiple fields and secondly, they don’t write in media to explain issues to the public or write books to project long-term effects and changes to the society?
Of course, most of our politicians pun sama jugalah. Except for people like Anwar and Tun M, hardly any of them read, but most of them know how to manipulate people and issues.
Academics do not know how to manipulate sentiments towards an issue of importance to move society to a new understanding.
If I were offered a post in any ministry, I would prefer not to be appointed to the top two political posts because that is a post where one has to deal with civil servants, the public, the political party and opposition MPs who just nak cari pasal.
It is a difficult balancing act that I was never trained for in my life. I would like to play an advisory role and even helm in one or two units that actually do the work and engage directly with the stakeholders.
My training has been to see the roots of the problems and not the symptoms, to draft a plan of action based on research and wisdom of others and also to be the bridge with the public on the progress and direction of those units.
Finally, I wish to say that as an academic, the first and most sacred rule is to know one’s limitation and scope.
An academic can philosophize but he or she understands the limitations of things especially himself and herself. Anything beyond is pure arrogance and delusion.
The posts of ministers are for politicians and they do not have to be “experts” in any discipline. Theirs is a role of managing people and resources and standing up to parliament and the public to defend the positions that their resources and people have made for the ministers.
Academics cannot make good ministers unless they leave their academic silos and evolve into a new socio-political entity outside of their seminar and lecture halls.
(Prof Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at a local university and his writing reflects his own personal opinion entirely.)