The learned must embrace the Malay tradition of ikut resmi padi, lagi berisi lagi tunduk.

THE recognition of Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Mohd Rashdan Baba as Tokoh Akademik Negara 2013 is indeed very appropriate. It is no small task to be a founding vice-chancellor of two public universities at a time when higher education was just finding its feet in the country

Mohd Rashdan is a role model for the current university leaders, particularly amidst reports of an embarrassing impasse of late.

In conjunction with the award presentation, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak mooted four main tasks for local tertiary institutions to fulfil as Malaysia moves towards becoming a high income nation. These include creating “a knowledge-generating centre” which is indeed the core task of any reputable university. Knowledge generation would assume a vibrant and conducive research and development ecosystem that is optimally funded. This, however, does not end there because the outcome must be made relevant through knowledge transfer and assimilation. The aim is to promote knowledge democracy where, like all democracies, knowledge is shared or co-created with the community in an atmosphere of academic autonomy, with the society being the major beneficiary. This takes away the snobbish ivory tower image that has lost its lustre as higher education becomes more accessible and is responsible for the social well-being of the community at large.

Najib is right in saying that universities should be able to produce not just an academic person but also a “truly educated” one as well. At another event, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Education Minister, illustrated this when he said: “Having a first-class degree is impressive but it is pointless if they (the graduates) are not able to deliver or communicate effectively.” This is where knowledge transfer and assimilation become the final end point as a measure of success which is often confused with the jargon “graduate employability”.

This point of contention was well taken up by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf in a public lecture at Shah Alam held in parallel to the prestigious National Academic Award event. Interestingly, he spoke on The Crisis of Knowledge — something that Malaysians seem to be oblivious to. Our discourse (or rather complaint) is more about a world-class education which is substantially a different issue altogether. The world-class cliche follows a hegemonic materialist tradition derived from a very distinct market philosophy and assumptions. Universities are made part of an industrial-education complex where producing “human capital” is the main business, literally.

It is because of this that Shaykh Hamza likened those who “graduated” from such a system to “compounded ignorance” (akin to bodoh sombong) instead of being educated in the true meaning of the word — seeking the truth. Universities have failed to nurture the human consciousness as part of the human essence and spirituality infused with intellectual prowess. Or if they did, it is so siloed and fragmented that another breed of “ignoramus” is being compounded, pursuing more of the needs of the ego and self-interest. In doing so, the search for meaning is relegated to the individual, drawing him away from the collective truth as manifested in the intellectual and spiritual crises of the time.

The remedy to this ongoing crises that leads to other global chaos is to seek a new and different world view that upholds, first and foremost, the essence of being human in the divine image where knowledge is about the arriving of the soul at meaning, and arriving meaning at the soul. This world view is a far cry from the failing reductionist world view of mechanistic human capital (also known as an education without soul).

In his other lecture aptly titled Higher Education for Higher Purpose, Shaykh Hamza emphasised that higher education should not be an exercise in making a living but rather to make a life and articulate the higher purpose of being.

The goal is, therefore, more civilisational in nature that delivers mercy and guidance for all humanity and preserves humanity dignity. It is collaborative instead of competitive. However, for this to happen, the so-called non-marketable disciplines of philosophy, ethics, logic, rhetoric and civilisational studies must be given their rightful place in the mainstream learning processes.

In light of this deeper wisdom of the definition of education, local tertiary institutions must figure out a way to create a “truly educated” person. This cannot be fulfilled without first deconstructing the assembly line that produces the “compounded ignorant”.

As Shaykh Hamza reminded us, there is a need to take cognisant of our own context and learning traditions of serving others instead of being served. This hinges on intellectual humility of the learned so well embraced by the Malay tradition of ikut resmi padi, lagi berisi lagi tunduk.