McCarthyism in Malaysia

The UKM4 decision has freed students, but when will Malaysian academics be free of Malaysian McCarthyism?

This writer has read the draft judgement of Dato Hishamuddin JCA in the UKM4 case that was uploaded to the Loyaburok website yesterday evening. It must be said that clearly Dato Hishamuddin JCA is truly a beacon of hope for those involved in academia. He addressed the legal and constitutional points well, pointing at the absurdity of allowing university students the right to enter into contracts, get married, vote, become directors of companies and office bearers and yet, at the same time, denying them freedom to express their support or dislike of any political party. As a student of constitutional law, this writer notices with great delight that Dato Hishamuddin JCA had continued the trend of decisions that was started by Tan Sri Gopal Sri Ram in affirming the applicability of the doctrine of “basic structure” in Malaysia. Dato Hishamuddin JCA had referred to the American case of Sweeney v New Hampshire 354 U.S. 234 (1957), and this writer humbly feels that more discussions and explanations need to be made concerning the subject matter in that case, especially so when it is highly relevant in the context of academic freedom in Malaysia.

McCarthy and 1950s USA

In the 1950s, the US was terrorised by McCarthyism, a movement headed by Senator McCarthy that was ostensibly aimed at sniffing out dangerous communists members/sympathisers in the USA. People from all walks of life were subjected to lengthy inquiries to ascertain whether they were guilty of “subversiveness” or whether they knew of others who were guilty of it. Teachers and lecturers were not the only ones whose lives were made miserable by McCarthyism. The madness of McCarthyism even extended to those in Hollywood. [In the Sweeney case, "'Subversive person' means any person who commits, attempts to commit, or aids in the commission, or advocates, abets, advises or teaches, by any means any person to commit, attempt to commit, or aid in the commission of any act intended to overthrow, destroy or alter, or to assist in the overthrow, destruction or alteration of, the constitutional form of the government of the United States, or of the state of New Hampshire, or any political subdivision of either of them, by force, or violence; or who is a member of a subversive organization or a foreign subversive organization."]

In Sweeney v New Hampshire, the Chief Justice of the United States’ Supreme Court upheld the academic and political freedom of the Petitioner, an academic, who had the right to give a lecture concerning the nature of socialism and Marxism, and had also the right to associate with any member of any political party. The Chief Justice remarked that:

“To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by Man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

In the following paragraph the Chief Justice continued his warning on clamping down on academic freedom simply on the basis of rooting out the views of perceived minority:

“History has amply proved the virtue of political activity by minority, dissident groups, who innumerable times have been in the vanguard of democratic thought and whose programs were ultimately accepted. Mere unorthodoxy or dissent from the prevailing mores is not to be condemned. The absence of such voices would be a symptom of grave illness in our society.”

There are certain similarities between McCarthyism in the USA and the act of labeling others in Malaysia. This writer views with amusement the antics of certain politicians and politicians-masquerading-as-academicians who readily label others as “pengkhianat bangsa”. This certainly brings to mind the use of denunciations as a political tool to boost a person’s political standing. A look at past examples would show how these unscrupulous people had no thought nor care whether such accusations would create unnecessary strife in the society and nor were they concerned whether such accusations were substantiated. The underlying motive in the whole exercise is to score some political points for their own political interests. Indeed, political opportunism is not something that was only recently created.

The unilaterally created hysterical fear against Communism was kicked up by Senator McCarthy who spared nothing and no one in his so-called crusade against the evil communists. Innocent people from different walks of life bore the brunt of being falsely accused to be “agents/sympathizers of Communist Russia”. Interestingly enough, people from the world of arts like artists, writers and even movie producers were not spared in this new form of “witch-hunt”. Even more interesting was the fact that people from the academia were not spared in this whole exercise. Professors were similarly accused of being “communists” and even the great Harvard University did not escape unscathed from this episode.

Herbert Block (aka Herblock) coined the term McCarthyism in this Washington Post cartoon of March 29, 1950. | Source: Wikipedia - Fair Use Asserted

“Witch hunts” througout the world

This “witch-hunt”is not the exclusive domain of the West. The Cultural Revolution in China saw thousands of innocent people detained, imprisoned, subjected to humiliating sham trials, and punished. These were all done in the name of “purging the nation off the enemy of the Socialist State”.

Malaysia similarly was not spared from this travesty. During the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, many people were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act on the suspicion that they were agents of the Communists. It is widely believed that the mass arrests had nothing to do with national security. Instead, it was simply a tool used by some politicians to get rid off their political opponents. Dr Syed Husin Ali related in his memoirs as to how he was pressured by his interrogators during his detention under the ISA to “name some communist leaders” in the country. What made it spectacular was how Dr Syed Hussin Ali refused to bow to their demands, including their demand that he named the maverick Dr. Mahathir Mohamad as a communist.

Another favourite label used by these unscrupulous people is the label of “pengkhianat bangsa”. What exactly does “pengkhianat bangsa” mean? Which “bangsa” it refers to is anybody’s guess, unless of course one decides to take a myopic view of society and adamantly believes that of all the races here, there is only one race that matters most. Next, what kind of “treasonous behavior” does it entail? Again, not much information is available. Feel free to arbitrarily fill in the blanks. This label has no definite criteria and is therefore perfect to be used (and abused) to further one’s own ambitions. It is ironic that even Dato’ Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz himself was branded as such when he rejected the denial made by some people that the BTN courses were not racist. In academia, a lecturer who attempts to deconstruct the monopoly of the political elites in squandering the benefits accrued under the affirmative action policies at the expense of the poor has been labeled “pengkhianat bangsa”. The label is even extended to any lecturer who warns the students not to be deceived by political propaganda drummed up by both the opposition and the ruling political parties.

When one studies all these trends, there are indeed a few inescapable similarities. Firstly, the people who did the accusing and labeling are only bent on political credits for their own political glory. For example, McCarthy was not interested at all in the dangers of Communism. He was just trying to strengthen his power base. Next, during the Cultural Revolution in China, Mao Ze Dong unleashed the Red Guards to physically assault his physical opponents just to consolidate his political supremacy after the failure of his failed policies that brought China to the brink of starvation. Similarly, in Malaysia back then, it was a matter of political survival when the contest to become the heir to Tun Hussein Onn became a heated battle. One could easily note the deception in all cases when naked political ambition and/or political opportunism was re-branded as matters of crucial social/national security.

Secondly, the charges of “witches”, “communists” and “agents of Western Imperialists” were mostly unsubstantiated, unproven and baseless accusations. So ludicrous were the charges that even drinking coffee would be deemed to be an unpatriotic act in Socialist China during that time. The accusers seemed to feel that such charges did not have to be proved. It is enough that the charges were made and the accused persons were hitherto presumed to be guilty of such charges.

Thirdly, the accusers enjoyed a fraudulent Messianic persona in attempting to frighten the masses into believing that there was a danger to the society and that the only way to be safe in the face of such a danger is for the masses put their absolute trust in the so-called messiah/defender/panglima/hero and to also follow his commands unquestioningly. Blind obedience and complete deference to the Messiah is a pre-requisite to this madness. Simply put: “ I know what is best for you”. This is later transformed into “if you are not with us, you are against us”.

It is funny to note how some people simply refuse to deal nor even acknowledge the large gaps in the availability and accessibility of information between today’s world and the good old days. It is even funnier to note how some people unapologetically assume that other people are stupid and ignorant. Thanks to the internet, the level of awareness among the current generation is larger and deeper as compared to the days without internet. There are some politicians who still think that the masses would readily believe in anything that is uttered by them. While that ploy might work among the older generation who have yet to discover the internet, such a ploy is ultimately suicidal when that information is tested and compared with the wide array of information available on the internet.

An example of an accusation of "pengkhianat bangsa" | Source:

Academics as guardians of the Malay race?

From all the self-serving statements made by such individuals, it is thus natural to believe in the conventional wisdom that the ruling political party welcomes those academics who self-servingly wear the mantle of the “guardians of the Malay race”. But in a survey carried out by this writer, it was discovered that such an assumption is unfounded. One cannot assume that for example, the UMNO members are fine with all these posturings done ostensibly for and in the name of the Malay community. As much as they are disgusted with any academics who are vocal against the ruling political party, the same disgust is also reserved for the academics who seem to go out of their way either in supporting the policies made by the ruling political party or venomously attacking the opposition. These people also feel that such “academics” should stop pretending to be “academics” and that they should resign and start competing with the other UMNO members in their grassroot UMNO elections. This should serve as a warning to those who feel that academia is an easy stepping stone towards higher/greater political positions. This writer has met with some grassroot UMNO members in Melaka who expressed their utter disgust with some professors who according to them, are “lebih sudu dari kuah”.

There are some people who do not agree in giving more freedom to our university students and lecturers. Aside from the usual human rights discourse which may include the “cultural relativism” angle, this is something that is naturally to be expected due to the history of our own institutions of higher learning. Most of our universities had originated from mere technical/vocational schools which later developed into colleges that offered diploma courses which then continued their progession into universities offering undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Thus, historically, our universities had the original aim of merely producing semi-skilled labourers for the job market. Combined with the nature of a “colonised” society which is exacerbated by the polemics of “post-colonialism” struggle for identity and the accompanying class struggles, independent and critical thinking have not been given proper nor adequate emphasis. Clearly, with the change in the direction of such institutions towards degrees and professional degrees, there should also be a change in mentality, and the level of cognitive skills required among the students. While it was fine to merely satisfy the stakeholders in drilling the students with absolute obedience in the early days, such an approach is woefully outdated today. Some had even pleaded that the nature of technology does not demand the same level of “academic freedom” prevalent in the social science.

Ironically, there is agreater degree of academic freedom  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in which one of its well-known academics, Noam Chomsky had remarked , “I went off as an antiwar activist. But no one ever objected. MIT is a very free and open place.”

But this argument falls flat when the policies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are examined. The contrived blindness to the current imperatives of the job market could be seen in the supreme level of confidence shown by these people that practical work at the total exclusion of all social, legal, economic and political issues inundating the society, trumps over everthing else. This phenomonen had never failed to cause us to shake our heads whenever we listen to horror stories about university graduates from some law faculties who only know how to perform the tasks usually performed by clerks in legal firms and as to how such menial jobs are glorified at the expense of other more important legal and professional skills. Thankfully, the current mindset among the local law schools is that it takes more than just the black coat/robe to be a lawyer, as much as it takes more than just a perfect command of English to be a good lawyer.

Finally, it is easy to put the blame on the shoulders of these “poseurs”, that these people should be taken to task for their wanton acts of political opportunism . However, the blame is and should also be shared by the surrounding people, “innocent bystanders”, who collude, condone and allow such things to happen in the first place. Human beings react to different types of motivations and incentives, and while the most common incentives are economic, social and moral, often it is the economic incentives that would triumph over others. This writer, as a muslim, shudders at the thought of the horrific Divine retribution awaiting these people. If the Courts around the world have regularly and systematically rejected the plea of “I was pressured, I had to follow orders, I had no choice, I was worried that it would affect my livelihood”, there is certainly no need to think of the validity of such excuses in the Hereafter.

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A prententious person from the lower rungs of the society who dreams of clinching the Anugerah Kepimpinan Ibrahim Ali.

Posted on 3 November 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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One Response to McCarthyism in Malaysia

  1. nazim, well i guess i should address you sir nazim, i have been trying to reach and find you all this while..