Monday, April 16, 2007

Why Malaysia Universities Will Never Improve

by ex-researcher

I used to work in a Malaysian university holding a professorial post on contract. I could not be confirmed because I do not have a SPM (more later). I worked in research dealing with stem cells but left after 3 years despite the offer of renewal for another 2 years. I am a Malaysian Chinese who spent nearly 20 years overseas in some of the big name universities in Australia and the UK.
After observing the system from the inside I can tell you that Malaysian universities will never improve, and whatever improvement you see will not last. I will set out my reasons in a concise manner.

1) Staff are not hire on merit
I’ve noticed that most the new staff hired are Malays. There are very few Chinese and Indian staff on tenure track. Infact most of the non-Malays I came across are hired on contract. It does not take a genius to know that if you don’t put people on tenure, they will not give their best.
One day I asked a DVC in private why there are so few non-Malay staff on tenure. I was surprised when he told me directly that there was an unofficial quota. He further told me that there is a lot of resistance from the junior Malay staff when non-Malays come in because they perceived the non-Malays are better researchers and academics. He also told me that good non-Malay staff go overseas, especially to Singapore so they do not want to waste their time in hiring non-Malay staff. I do not if this is true.

2) No research culture since promotion is not based on research
Despite all the talk by the Minister, there is no research culture. Infact, most local academics are not interested in research. A few of the Malay academics told me straight in the face that they like group or cluster research because it is “easier”. They don’t go for excellence or individual research. They also tell me that promotion is based on administrative work and “cables” to the Minister or VC. In fact a few of them tell me that good researchers are punished by the whole group because they make the others look bad or lazy. Thus no matter how good you are when you join, by putting you in a “research group” they are slowing the good ones down and before you know it, they become part of the group culture.
In the university where I was working, the VC or DVC did not published a single paper in an international referred journal. Except for one DVC, the VC and the other DVC do not even have a single book. The DVC with a book is a textbook in Malay and when I looked at it, I realized that it was mainly translation he passed off as his own work. Two of the DVC were active with UMNO and the VC is a relative of an UMNO strongman. Thus the “cable” theory appears to be true.
A retired Malay professor told me the most important criteria for promotion is “how you get along with people”. He also told me if you are good, they will bring you down because if the universities have standards, then they cannot survive in their jobs. In his own words, more than 4/5 of the current university staff will never be able to get academic jobs in a real university.

3) Pettiness and Jealously
The Malay culture is based in group behaviour and gossip and during my time there, I noticed that even academic staff took a lot of time in gossiping about nonsense. Most of the female academic staff used gossip to bring down capable people. For example, one Malay guy who just came back with his PhD had to endure a lot of gossip, all because one female academic staff complained that he did not hold a kenduri to celebrate his successful completion of PhD.
Another time, all the academic staff, including the Dean, ganged up against me because I had managed to published a paper in a leading international journal. Immediately after my name was mentioned by the VC as an example, the Dean started telling other academic staff that I did not “contribute enough” to the faculty.
I was under the impression that I was there to do research and publish but for these people, who cannot do research, the priority was on social events. This Dean was not even an academic in the first place but was a civil servant before he was appointed Dean. All the academics he has appointed since he became Dean all come from his state and all are local graduates. So how to improve?
There are many more things I want to say but these are the main reasons why Malaysian universities have no hope of ever being world class. As long as everything is based on race, pettiness and not on merit, I cannot see a way out.
I am writing this not out of frustration ( I am now overseas) but to also show why local universities waste so much money joining the Geneva Exhibitions and the like (as reported in the newspapers). The sad truth is when you have people who cannot publish in real academic journals, then they play silly games like join exhibitions.
The USM DVC who defended this practice would be laughed at if he was at a real university. In fact, to be frank, people like him cannot get a real academic job in Singapore, NZ or US. He is a symbol of what is wrong at local universities.
In sum, you have the blind leading the blind.

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