Universities should celebrate differences, says scholar after UiTM fiasco

Alfian Z.M. Tahir

UiTM has been the subject of fierce debate in the last few weeks after students at the university protested against admitting non-Bumiputera into its postgraduate cardiothoracic surgery programme. – The Vibes file pic, May 26, 2024.

UNIVERSITIES are meant to be a safe space to question norms, including the process of critically assessing reality, said independent scholar Sharifah Munirah Alatas.

She added that universities must offer the right space for lecturers, researchers and students to define, interpret and celebrate knowledge.

Referring to the recent fiasco involving Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Munirah said the ultimate goal of any university is to produce knowledge and act as a space to engage differences while recognising the diversity in humanity.

“Universities are spaces to engage differences because difference is a reality we must all live with and learn to accept. It is a space that defines, interprets and celebrates knowledge, which gives our society and the larger world, meaning and coherence.

“The goal must always be to celebrate differences. The more we know about what makes us different, the less threatened we will feel about diversity. 

“When we feel less threatened, we have the confidence to transform into an enlightened, respectable and progressive nation,” she said.

UiTM has been the subject of fierce debate in the last few weeks after students at the university protested against admitting non-Bumiputera into its postgraduate cardiothoracic surgery programme.

The university’s management had said that it will stay true to its mission to “empower the Bumiputera” and will not change its admission policy to admit students of all races.

However, its student representative council has since apologised for causing a “misunderstanding” by its recent protest.

Many politicians, especially from Umno, also jumped into the debate, warning that the status of UiTM should be protected.

Over-emotional personalities

Munirah, who is a sociologist, said the debacle over the temporary enrollment of non-Bumiputera students exposes the over-emotional personalities among many in the current administration.

The deputy chair of Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak) added the brouhaha at the same time displayed the failure of universities as well as academe as a whole.

“First, it exposes the brutish, destructive and over-emotional personalities among many in the current administration. Their impulsive need to use the police to intimidate those whose opinions they disagree with is embarrassing and counterproductive.

“This type of approach is preferred over a more intellectual, and civilised approach. Is it that they are either incapable, or have they willfully rejected frank, intelligent and civil dialogue to settle differences of opinion?

“Are they not aware that a leadership that engages and encourages intelligent dialogue to settle disputes is a leadership that nurtures a more progressive, productive and confident society?

“Rather, it appears that our band of politicians are bent on suppressing thinking Malaysians. This habit of filing police reports for every little thing that upsets them is an insult to our intelligence, a waste of valuable resources. It is also grossly disruptive to society,” she said.

Recently, Umno Youth chief Akmal Saleh urged party members to lodge police reports against Malaysiakini columnist Andrew Sia and the news portal for publishing an article which labelled UiTM as an “apartheid academy”.

In his column, Sia had criticised a protest by UiTM’s student council against calls to admit non-Bumiputera students into the university’s cardiothoracic surgery postgraduate programme.

Police are investigating Sia over his opinion piece for allegedly intentionally insulting to provoke a breach of the peace under the Penal Code, and the alleged use of insulting words under the Minor Offences Act. 

Act like a university 

Munirah, who is a graduate of the prestigious Columbia University (US), also slammed the response from UiTM’s vice chancellor Prof Shahrin Sahid, who allegedly ignored the reality of the shortage of cardiothoracic surgeons in the country.

“His reasoning for students wearing black as a sign of protest was incredibly bizarre as he deemed the action as an expression of the Bumiputera ‘identity’.

“The VC found it more important to define ‘protest’, essentially evading the more serious issue of why the students were campaigning in the first place.

“Instead the VC decided to clarify his understanding by adding that there was no decision made by the government to open up UiTM to non-Bumiputera in the first place.”

Munirah urged UiTM to do the right thing by organizing a debate and hearing other perspectives.

“However, it seems UiTM may not have that confidence, which has more serious implications about where the country is heading in terms of progressive thinking and national development.” – May 26, 2024.

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  • It not a debate. There is no two legitimate opposing views here. Its simply racial protectionism of the worst kind, Similar to if its right to oppose slavery.

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