COMMENT: Practice and consumption of Social Science in Malaysia
A BRIDGE: An academy for the fraternity is long overdue
At a recent international conference in Penang, I was told of an episode displaying prejudice against the Arts by Science and Technology academics from a broad-based multidisciplinary university.
I thought in such a setting, the war was over. But debates and polemics are integral to university life.
Their absence necessarily connotes a faculty disinterested in discourse, where competency is measured through the efficiency of numbers -- and not through processes and value of thinking and debates.
It is unwise to claim superiority of our own fields and expertise in doing something. I have encountered academics, who under certain occasions, emphasised that their line of thought takes on the logic of their professed identity.
In a way, that is justified. But there are universals and particularities. We cannot assume our chosen field to be the only truth and solution to a problem.
There are many approaches. At the same time, there are common traits governing scholars and scholarship, transcending both the Arts and Science.
QUESTION OF DIFFERENCE
It is not a question of superiority -- it is a question of difference, of how epistemologies are different (and similar), of the sources from which we derive knowing, and the cognates branching from the foundation of knowing.
Questioning the Arts (and nothing stops us from doing that) -- the Social Sciences and the Humanities in contemporary parlance -- is like flooding our nasi kandar plate with lots of curry but without rice. And if the rice is not forgotten, then it is the problem of separating the curry from the rice on the same plate.
The dish would not be one without curry -- or as we say in Penang, gulai -- and curry alone does not make nasi kandar. It is the staple -- rice, flooded with curry, with no more than one or two other dishes -- that defines the cuisine for connoisseurs and popular consumers alike.
And nasi kandar can only be understood in context -- the historical moment, culture, work, migration, commerce and entrepôt trade, and cosmopolitanism. It grew out of the pace and spirit of the social organisation in Tanjung (George Town) then.
That was how I had conceived and reflected on the announcement by the Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin at the recent World Engineering, Science and Technology Congress in Kuala Lumpur organised by Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS.
The theme of the congress was Towards Sustainability: Bridging Engineering, Technology And Humanities.
The Minister had argued that the Arts and Humanities nurtured the critical and creative perspective, tolerance and reason. Public debates and policies must be informed by integrating Science and Technology with the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Science and Technology are not enough.
This is not the first time the voice of the Social Sciences and the Humanities fraternity is expressed in that respect.
The Minister's announcement, made in the midst of a Science and Technology meeting, resonated with continuing attempts at "professionalising" the fraternity under a common platform for the common good of society and nation.
For more than four decades now, we have seen the neglect in the study of ourselves -- as man and society and our interaction with God, nature, ourselves and others, and relations with the past and present.
IMPERIALISM OF SCIENCE
We unwisely oriented the knowledge of ourselves towards practical matters, the market and industry, at the expense of social discipline, intelligence, integrity and ethics.
It sends us the message that Geography, History, Literature, Philosophy and Sociology are useless forms of knowledge, having no practical and economic value and therefore inferior to Science and Technology.
In my Penang Free School days in the 1970s, I experienced the imperialism of Science. The zeitgeist was the future in Science. It became an ideology with an end in itself.
The regime virtually oppressed our souls. Teachers were the apparatus appropriating "political correctness" of the new ideology then, and now too.
The Arts students were conditioned to think as non-functioning idiots to the world. The streaming policy had failed our teachers and school administrators. But we have not failed them.
My schooling experience and my current encounters with the Malaysian academy say that the two cultures (from C. P. Snow's 1959 Two Cultures lecture, see Learning Curve, Feb 8, 2009 ) is alive and well.
We have seen and experienced shades of Snow's two cultures having cast their shadows over Malaysian universities and society.
And so will the proposal for another academy (the other is the Academy of Science, Malaysia established under the Academy of Sciences Act 1994 and launched in 1995) cast this separation in stone? Are we moving away and deepening the apparent chasm between the two modes of knowing?
I would argue otherwise.
Not having a separate, independent academy for the Social Sciences and Humanities would deepen the chasm between Science and the Arts. It is only through the Social Sciences and the Humanities would the bridging appear.
This is not only linguistic and rhetorical, but substantive in that Science (and Technology) is objective partial knowledge of non-living and living objects/things/matter. Answering questions as to "what", "how" and "why" about a thing connotes humans and societies. The collective human labour and interpretation of life is the other form of knowledge.
Apart from questions of theory and epistemology in continuously creating an intellectual tradition in the nation as a post-colonial state, the proposed academy can forge a platform for Malaysian social scientists and scholars in the Humanities to rethink the nature of knowledge that we are producing (and consuming).
The proposed academy functions as a learned society. It does not offer any degrees but appoints fellows and may develop such objectives as:
1. A national forum representing scholars and researchers in the Social Sciences and the Humanities in Malaysia
2. Bridging and integrating the Social Sciences and the Arts with Science, Technology and Engineering
3. Ensuring relevance of the teaching and research of Social Science and the Humanities to nation and society
4. Advising the government on public and social policy initiatives, issues and outcomes
5. Conducting collaborative research on areas of relevance to Malaysian society
6. Undertaking efforts at theory-building relevant to Malaysian and non-Western societies
7. Bridging the gap between studies and research between Peninsular Malaysia, and Sabah and Sarawak
8. As a centre for dialogue and the exchange of ideas among social scientists, natural scientists, philosophers, policy planners and administrators
9. Publishing journals, monographs and books
10. Serving as a platform to internationalise Malaysian Social Science and the Humanities
11. Communicating and creating public awareness and understanding on Social Science and Humanities in Malaysia.
The last objective sees the promotion of the craft of Social Science for societal and national advancement.
As in all wars, campaigns are necessary. If there is a campaign for Science and Technology awareness, there may as well be a campaign for Social Science and Humanities Awareness.
The vision of Social Science and the Humanities is publicly unheard of. It is not present in the nation's transformation plans.
Social Science is not framed as a popular and policy discourse. The man in the street, who is a consumer of national policies and national consciousness, does not have an idea of what Social Science is, and what it does.
Social Science and the Humanities in Malaysia, I fear, may not even find a comfortable home in the universities, what more in the public sphere -- media, public administration and parliament.
The proposed academy is the appropriate place to plan, identify and produce young scholars in the Social and Human Sciences.
Without context, how do we comprehend social taste and text?