ATimes: Malaysian academics uneasy about oath
By Anil Netto
12/4/2002 11:06 am Fri
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - Close to a million civil servants in
Malaysia are required to sign a new pledge of loyalty, but
some academics at public universities are privately
grumbling that it could infringe on their academic freedom.
The pledge, which civil servants are required to make either
privately or in oath-taking ceremonies across the country,
is an oath of loyalty to king, country and government. By
March 31, nearly all academics along with university staff
had signed the pledge. Undergraduates at public universities
are also supposed to make a loyalty pledge by the time the
new academic session begins next month.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself signed the Aku Janji
(I Pledge), a letter promising the undertaking of good
conduct, before Malaysia's king on March 6. He later
witnessed his cabinet ministers and civil servants signing
the pledge. The pledge also requires signatories to heed all
existing and future directives and orders. An explanatory
note in a circular on the pledge reads: "An officer who goes
against or criticizes a government policy will undermine the
integrity and stability of the civil service as a whole."
This has caused some fidgeting among some civil servants,
university people and critics, who say that asking civil
servants to pledge loyalty to the government of the day is
quite different from pledging loyalty to king and country.
Most civil servants have dutifully complied, some viewing it
as just another bureaucratic requirement. But one academic
at a public university, Rosli Omar, raised eyebrows with his
detailed public critique of the requirement.
"Any pledge of loyalty to any interested party, including an
Oath of Loyalty to any government, is very much against the
academic function of pursuing knowledge in a free,
non-partisan way, and without personal objectives in mind,"
he wrote. "To the best of my knowledge, there is no
government that practices democracy that compels academics
to declare loyalty to it, especially loyalty to anything
that will only emerge in the future."
Rosli also observed that laws and regulations had in the
past been imposed upon academics. "Now, through the pledge,
we are to agree to the imposition. We are supposed to agree
to go against what it means to be an academic," he lamented.
"We are supposed to agree never to question anything that
the government, our superiors, tell us, against our
expertise that might tell us otherwise, against our
The concern that the pledge may lead to potential curbs on
independent, critical thinking has also roiled others. "We
are at the end of our tether," said a frustrated professor,
who had just signed the pledge. "They [the authorities] can
do anything they like. I have given up trying to guess their
She says that academics at her university had to sign the
single-page pledge "certificates", which they could keep,
while photocopies were retained by the university. "We must
be the only bunch of academics in the world to be treated as
civil servants," she grumbled.
She says some academics think the pledge is harmless and
sign without a thought, and others are habitually obedient
no matter what the order, while a small minority are taking
the pledge issue seriously and feel uneasy. One professor at
a local university, who requested anonymity, said that at
his university, "the whole exercise is not taken seriously
by the academic staff". He added, "Many are just going
through the motions" in signing the pledge.
Still, the academic staff associations at two universities
have issued a sample letter for academics who are uneasy
about the pledge. The letter states that they are signing
the pledge under duress for economic reasons - that is, they
fear losing their jobs if they refuse to sign.
The University of Malaya Academic Staff Association in a
statement last month called for the withdrawal of the
directive requiring civil servants to sign the pledge. The
pledge, the association adds, should be "rewritten to take
into consideration matters that violate basic individual
rights, staff union rights, and the right to academic
Academics and students say they already have to contend with
the stifling Universities and University Colleges Act
(UUCA), which forbids involvement in politics. Last year,
dozens of university lecturers allegedly engaging in
anti-government activities were given a warning, transferred
Civil servants were said to be divided over the government's
handling of the September 1998 ouster of former deputy
premier Anwar Ibrahim, which sparked the reformasi movement.
Last year, soon after 10 reformasi activists were detained
under the Internal Security Act, which allows detention
without trial, two student activists were detained under the
same law - though they were both later released.
The student associations in a string of public universities
are controlled by groups said to be sympathetic to the
opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). PAS made
inroads during the 1999 general election, though its star
has waned somewhat since the September 11 attacks in the
But government officials say the academics' worries about
the pledge undermining their independence are unfounded. The
Aku Janji pledge is also "a pact between students and their
respective universities that they will concentrate and focus
on their studies", explained the director of the Higher
Education Department in the Education Ministry, Dr Hassan
Said, in a newspaper interview published recently.
"Most of the items on the agreement are derived from the
UUCA to reaffirm their roles as students," he said. "The
main idea behind the contract is that they spend time on
their studies and not on unproductive activities. It will
help govern their conduct."
Academic Rosli, however, noted that Mahathir himself has
often said that Islamic civilization has regressed because
of the lack of a spirit of inquiry. "But this
open-mindedness and spirit of inquiry require an environment
where one is free to discuss and question even those in
authority," he added. Rosli argued that academics should be pledging a different
kind of loyalty - to academic attitude: "I pledge to be
loyal to the spirit of open-mindedness, of knowledge pursued
in the name of searching for truth without prejudice,
without personal interests."
Rosli argued that academics should be pledging a different kind of loyalty - to academic attitude: "I pledge to be loyal to the spirit of open-mindedness, of knowledge pursued in the name of searching for truth without prejudice, without personal interests."