by Nungsari A Radhi

(Article originally appeared in Malaysiakini, Sunday July 22, 2001)

The universities have found themselves in the limelight of late, mostly for the wrong reasons. The wrong reasons have also focused on the wrong things that are ailing our campuses.

Discussions of these issues made me recall my undergraduate days at a typical mid-western university in the United States (US) during the late 1970s. I was one of the fortunate ones who won a scholarship to study overseas. It was a fun and difficult time, being thrown into a foreign country at 18 after the tightly controlled environment in Malaysia.

As with most universities in the US, there is a daily campus newspaper – a rather extensive student-run newspaper manned mostly by the journalism majors on campus. The campus community depends on the daily for information and news about the going-ons on campus as well as a sprinkling of local and international news.

Once there was a, probably well-intentioned, editorial on the lives of international students. Among others the piece focused on the social life, or rather the lack of it, of international students.

Things like isolation and not being invited to parties and all that came with them during the weekends. Somehow, the Malay machismo in me took it as an affront to all able-bodied, hot-blooded Malaysian males on campus.

As trivial as it seems, I was energised enough to write a long response. As if that was not enough, I also solicited as many signatures I could get from people who shared my sentiments. The honor of Malaysians was at stake here – these condescending Americans are implying we cannot get dates on weekends and end up among ourselves watching TV! How improperly truthful their allegations were!

Jingoistic explosion

I did a lot of other non-academic activities when I was an undergraduate, some of which I would rather not share with the public, but they remain etched in my memory and form the most memorable part of those years. They were certainly more memorable than constructing splines or computing Fourier transforms.

Lest people get the impression I was only concerned about trivial things, let me also share an experience where I actually was driven by nationalistic pride of a different, perhaps more substantial, kind.

Once, I was so emotionally disturbed by all the negative news on Malaysia – it was the height of the Vietnamese boat people saga – and the endless heated discussions I had in my sociology class that I wrote an article titled ‘The Rape of My Motherland’, a jingoistic explosion of nationalistic pride. I must have sounded very Third World-like, but who cared?

Unlike those who ended up in politics, I was not actively involved in students’ associations or political activities which would have made me OK by our present standards. I was, however, busy making all sorts personal statements in rebellion against anything Establishment. A rebel with too many causes. Had I been a student at University Malaya (UM) today, I might have gotten myself into real trouble!

Instead of joining the Malaysian students association, I decided to launch a new association because the existing one was just too bland, populated by colorless individuals. That failed miserably, so I decided to get into this ‘creationism versus evolution’ debate after attending a public debate on campus on the subject.

How I was torn between my religious convictions which pulled me towards the creationist camp and my own sense of inquiry, that is a result from my learning, which pulled me in the opposite direction.

There were also a lot of other memorable moments like the 1980 US Presidential Election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. I fancied myself a Democrat and got really involved in the elections.

Enduring passion

Of course, I had to also study, hard sometimes, to pass my exams and graduate. It was through the classroom that I learned my mathematics enough to graduate in the subject and proceed to graduate studies in the same subject. That I am Malay, supposedly not endowed with the capacity to do mathematics, did not really cross my mind.

I did not have to listen to the kinds of gibberish we hear nowadays. The subject I chose also colored me as a person as well. By the time I was done with my studies, the idea of a perfect evening was candlelight dinner, a can of Coke and a nice theorem! It was too late to realise that girls did not go for mathematics majors, except mathematics majors who were girls.

Sure, I was not around during the colonial days, but I had to suffer the indignities of being discriminated as well when I was there. Just because I was not the same. Sort of put things in perspective but I never developed a racist view of race relations.

I learned to look at individuals as individuals. Age and experience has taught me that individuals, even those of your own race, can do more serious things than just discriminate against you.

What is the point of all this nostalgia? Exactly that. They are the fond recollections of an over- forty-year-old man. Of the time when he was an undergraduate in university – a young adult discovering himself and learning about life and himself.

My skills as a human being, beyond the specific knowledge of my study area, were honed during that period. I learned to manage my own affairs, deal with people, relationships and situations, and discovered the wealth of knowledge.

It was then that I developed a view of the human condition and the enduring passion for some issues. I would like to think I was educated, not merely trained.

Control freaks

Students must be allowed to learn, for they are students for only a limited period of their lives. After the study years, everyone will be burdened with responsibilities and the real world. I am today a father and husband who has to worry about work, mortgage payments, bills and the future of my children.

The idealism and innocence of youth is the nation’s treasure. Their activism must not be constrained along partisan lines.

The process of learning is more than just grades and what occurs in the classroom. With a six-course load, a student spends only eighteen hours a week in lectures and tutorials. The rest of the time is spent living, and learning as well. The broader process of education.

So what if a student is driven by his convictions to believe in something? So what if that something is against the existing powers that be? Should not politicians of all stripes be given a chance to expound their views on campus so that they may compete in the marketplace of ideas?

So that they are forced to properly articulate their views beyond rhetoric. The ignorance and innocence of students do not make them easy crowds but therein lies the challenge. Those in the game of influence should relish the challenge.

What kind of adults are we producing if our university students are merely kiasu types who selfishly worry about their grades, their livelihood, their successes, their lives, their future, and their problems; theirs and theirs only. What about compassion, sacrifice and the sense to serve the nation and make a difference?

There was a period in my life when I was a lecturer at a local university. For some ten years, more than fifteen years ago. What control freaks we, Malaysians, seemed to be. Local universities treat young adults, twenty-year old freshmen, like school kids.

We love uniformity and implement measures to prevent deviations. And we wonder why our graduates lack imagination, confidence, initiative and a sense of independence. It saddens me to read the kind of stuff that comes out from our so-called senior educationists. The lack of academic leadership at our campuses. The vulgarisation of the idealism of learning.

Real enemy

It is therefore a sad day that the Internal Security Act (ISA) has to be used against our students. A law from the legacy of the communist insurgency used against our own children. As a parent, a teacher and a citizen, I am deeply saddened that the most draconian of the nation’s laws is used against the future leaders of the nation.

Shame unto all. Shame on us all. We have indeed failed, but the authorities have, by their action in arresting these students for supposed threats to internal security, acknowledged their own failures.

If anybody cares about the universities, they should instead worry about the lack of space for students to grow and learn on campus. These have nothing to do with whether students are sympathetic with a particular political view.

We have to learn to live with our differences. Those differences are part of the national treasure, not a curse. I am a believer in that we have lived with ourselves throughout these years. The present generation has also managed to exorcise some of the ghosts that haunted our older generations.

The Malaysian house is a bigger place to wander about since previously forbidden, haunted places are now accessible. My worry is that the big house is increasingly housing sectarian rooms occupied by those who lack the courage and confidence to go beyond the comforts of familiarity.

As a father I sometimes wonder how I am going to let my daughters go, when the time comes. Nevertheless, I know I have to do it – it is their turn at living their lives. Their futures here on earth are longer than mine. I have to let go.

I can only comfort myself that I have done the best to provide them with the tools to survive. But I will forever love them, and if they go about doing some silly things, I will not blame their upbringing or their genes. They are me.

As the great Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, said, we are not living in heaven. There will always be problems here on this earth. Maybe we should just look at the problem squarely in the eyes. Maybe the real enemy is us.

— DR NUNGSARI A RADHI is a father of two daughters whose futures he had in mind when writing this piece. Despite doing many things, he stills think of himself as a teacher foremost, his first profession.