A national shame that Malaysia can spend RM650 million to build the Putrajaya Convention Centre when there is not a single world-class university in the country
by Lim Kit Siang
(Petaling Jaya, Thursday): It is a national shame that Malaysia can spend RM650 million to build the Putrajaya Convention Centre – the latest exorbitant white elephant to mark the end of the 22-year Mahathir premiership – when there is not a single world-class university in the country.
The National Economic Action Council (NEAC) executive director Datuk Mustapha Mohamed said in The Star today that NEAC has proposed the creation of a “super” university that will be assured of the biggest grants from the Government so that researchers from around the world would be attracted by the resources and status of the proposed university.
He said: “Perhaps we should consider converting one of our universities into a world-class university with the best students and lecturers.”
Mustapha had inadvertently confirmed my critique of the education system in Malaysia, in particular higher education, less than two weeks ago – that Malaysia does not have a world-class university and the 30-year decline of academic excellence and university standards in the public universities.
DAP had consistently and constantly, both inside and outside Parliament, attempted to compel the government to address these major flaws in the country’s higher education system – as illustrated by the fact that in the sixties, Malaysia's sole university, the University of Malaya, was rated as one of the best universities in the Asia-Pacific but more than three decades later, it had suffered such a serious erosion of academic standards and quality that it was ranked a lowly 47th position out of 77 universities in the Asiaweek's 2000 ranking of Best Universities in the region, with two other named universities, Universiti Putra Malaysia in 52nd and Universiti Sains Malaysia in 57th position.
Malaysia has currently 17 public universities, 11 private universities, 4 foreign university branch campuses, 3 local private university branch campuses, 2 private university colleges and 516 private colleges/institutes of non-university status – but we do not have a single world-class university when we should have several by our global development status. I do not think Malaysia even ranks among the world’s 300-400 top universities.
While Mustapha’s frankness in admitting that Malaysia does not have a world-class university is commendable, his proposal to overcome the problem is not only unorthodox and even naïve and based on a fallacy.
He seems to think that a world-class university can be established if the government throws enough money at it, as if the single greatest challenge for a university to attain world-class status is financial rather than to establish a culture, tradition and reputation for academic excellence in learning, teaching and scholarship.
While money is important, it cannot on its own buy academic excellence and quality, or many countries, corporations or tycoons in the world would have their own Cambridges, Oxfords, Harvards or Princetons by endowing their universities with adequate funding!
Mustapha’s suggestion of converting one of our universities into a world-class university with the best students and lecturers would be more apt if it had been accompanied by a government preparedness to address the root causes for the erosion and decline of University of Malaya from an university of international renown to its present mediocre status!
The idea that there could be an oasis of meritocracy with one world-class university in a desert of mediocrity is misplaced, as Malaysia must aim not just for one but a number of world-class universities. The critical question is whether there is the political will to ensure a general uplifting of the standards of academic excellence and quality in our institutions of higher learning, starting with the introduction of genuine meritocracy not only for university admissions for students but also for the appointment and promotion of academicians, including university vice chancellors.
The RM650 million wasted on the Putrajaya Convention Centre would have been better spent on the goal to establish a few world-class universities in the country. In fact, the money would have been better spent just to prevent Kuala Lumpur from being so flashflood-prone that a three-hour downpour could paralyse the city, cripple the traffic flow and public transport system, causing enormous avoidable damage to life and property.
* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman