Saturday, March 22, 2008

A model for society - Wawancara khas dengan The Sun

The Sun 26 May 2007

Professor Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin was appointed Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) vice-chancellor in August last year, making her the second woman to helm a Malaysian public university. The medical doctor, who turns 60 this year, has a long history in academia and is also well-known for her other work, including as National Council of Women's Organisations (NCWO) president. She speaks with JACQUELINE ANN SURIN about her plans for UKM. 26 May 2006

TheSun: Since you were appointed vice-chancellor of UKM in August last year, what key challenges have you begun to address? And what are your priority areas going forward?

Well, let's not say 'key challenges', ok, because everyday is a challenge to meet the goals we have set. But, I think maybe we can say 'major changes'.

Major changes?

Ya, major changes that I see as very strategic and important for us to move forward. So, my focus has always been on human resource. Looking at what we have in the university and motivating them to continue improving.

We have academic staff, we have administrative staff, we have support staff in the technical area and so on. And then, we have students, both post-grad and undergrad. These are the people in the university. And each of those components need to understand what it is that we are doing, why we are doing it and where we are going. So, that's my first focus, and it still is. It's the staff. I put my priority on academic staff. The two ends are the top senior professors, and the lower, my pool, the pool of academic staff will be my lecturers, and people whom we recruit and we send off for training for PhD and so on. They represent my potential, my future for UKM. So, I feel if I take care of this lower end and the top end, that they are retained and continue to be mentors to the younger group, then I have a better chance of building UKM the way I want to go. And I start with academic staff, then I will have to move on to the administrative staff because they are also very important and critical in the work of the university. They are the ones who will be looking after the academic staff. Then the technical staff who need to be retrained, re-tooled, sometimes because we have moved on. For example, laboratory skills. We need to be upgraded. Computer skills, we need to be upgraded.

So, I really feel if I do take care and look at them in terms of, um, lifelong learning opportunities and better conditions for them to work in, then the chances of us realising our objectives will be greater. So, that's my main focus and a lot of my energy actually has been in that. I invest a lot of time in looking and making sure that the staff are happy. Then, it's pursuing our core mission, that of research, teaching and our services in terms of our expertise either through consultancies or service to the community. And to me, these three things you can do very well once you have these core things sorted out - your human resource, your facilities, the infrastructure, and so on. Of course, they go simultaneously. Now, it becomes more important because we are supposed to be a research university. And we have to look at how we are going to re-orient ourselves, and what it means to be a research university. I think we need to ask that question. And the university, the people in UKM, need to sit together and decide. We need to ask, 'What are we? What problems do we have? What are our strengths? And where are we going?' I keep on telling everybody, we cannot be known for a hundred things. So, we need to be very clear what we will be known for in research. Where are our strengths, then we pour more resources in building up those strengths, while encouraging the others to come on board. Because we have to be strategic. Resources are limited. You mentioned just now that you are also looking at staff retention, especially of your senior professors. Is staff retention a problem right now? No, I think we are doing quite well... the retention is not a problem. What we are trying to do is to recruit more people from outside. So, the idea is to have more diversity in the university in terms of academic input. And that's why we also have the research institutes going out, like Ikon which is the Institute for Occidental Studies, um, they really need scholars from say, the Western hemisphere, including Australia and New Zealand, to establish links, whether they are here or not here, but we have these linkages with them, either as honorary or adjunct professors. The professors who are here, I don't think we have a problem retaining them. Once the government says they can be extended up to 65 years (of age), they go on contract because they would have been pensioned off according to the legal requirements but after that, they remain as contract professors. A lot of them are very productive. So, we will not lose them. So, they will continue to supervise and research. Is the promotion process an open process in UKM? Is it open and transparent? Ya, I would say it's transparent. What we do is we have clear criteria which we share with everyone. And they put in their application, and they are evaluated by internal as well as external referees. Three are international referees and three are internal. And the internal also give an evaluation of their personality. And when an academic is promoted, are his or her credentials openly made known as well?

Actually, the credentials are quite known because the CVs (curriculum vitae) of these people are (an) open secret. Now, you see with the directory (a national directory of academics in public universities by the Higher Education Ministry) that was launched on March 1, all professors are encouraged to put their publications, their ten best, their research and so on in it. That's for public access, so you're free to go and compare whatever within the same field. Not everything is there, they may have more things when they put in (applications) for promotions but the point is to make it objective. The transparency comes from having the criteria and procedure and the people know about it, and well, if they think it's not fair or not objective, they can always ask for changes. But it goes through a consensus. When we put up the criteria, for example, it's presented to, say, the heads of divisions, they all look at it, and they agree. So, if we agree, we apply the criteria and the decision-making is done - and I chair for (applications for) professor - then there's the board member, Senate representative, faculty rep, so the committee is known as well. And we also have what is called a peer review process, so they have to undergo peer review first - which is people from the same field who will evaluate the candidate. And this is a very important step in the whole promotion exercise. Because if you cannot get through the peer review, then it's difficult to get through elsewhere. Then, it becomes a different kind of promotion, right? So, it's a very stringent process, I think, and we should be proud of those who have been made professors. They would have made their contributions, they would have published, they would have supervised students, they would have done research and so on. Ok, you talked earlier about keeping academic staff motivated. And one of the complaints that we hear a lot about is that academic freedom and independent thought is restricted by laws like the UUCA (Universities and University Colleges Act) and the Statutory Bodies Discipline and Surcharge Act. What are your views on these two pieces of legislation? Ok, I see it this way. I think sometimes laws are made because there is a group, small group perhaps, who will go to extremes and can do damage, ya. So, laws are there to protect the country perhaps from er, unnecessary commotion or disturbance or whatever, for security or whatever. But in the main, I think you need not fear.
But it's just that they have this nagging feeling that 'What if they decide one day to impose this on me?' So, then they may go to self-censorship and not talk. But I always feel that if you have something to say, and you back it up with the proper methodology and you can defend, you can stand by your findings, why not? Ya, you go ahead and present it. But you must know at what platform you want to present because that will be tied up to your motive. I think all these Acts are done because of the motive factor, not the content matter. Because you can take your content to many, many places and present. But some people have different motives and they do it in a way that is quite damaging to many parties, ya.
You need actions to be taken but do you need to publicise it all the time? You can do research, you as an academic, you study and you have ideas but there are avenues for you to present your ideas, right? And if it takes a higher level to act on your ideas, then work in such a way that you can get those ideas presented. And that comes with the skills of being an academic. You just don't go shout everywhere and if people don't understand the issue, you really get into trouble, you know.
Um, and I think it's a matter of knowing how and where to voice your opinion and to let your ideas flow. Um, as far as I'm concerned, I allow. For example, my lecturer whose study got quoted (child and youth psychology specialist Dr Khaidzir Ismail whose 'High-Risk Female Youth Profile' study, commissioned by the Selangor government, found that out of 887 secondary school respondents, all but one had had sex). Now, as far as I'm concerned, his study is sound. The problem is the sensationalisation of his study (by the media in late February). Now, that is inappropriate. Because then it gives rise to a lot of alarm and er, unnecessary problems. Because the public as a whole, they do not understand research methodology. They see something and if the newspapers play it up in the wrong way, then they are going to believe it.
And that's dangerous. So, you must also know when and where to publish. In a reputable journal? Or do you speak to the press? You know, so these are the things which are associated with these Acts that have been put up. Because, strictly speaking, if you don't do it correctly, you can be subject to disciplinary measures. That's right, and one of the criticisms of the Act is that it is actually quite broad in its definitions, so that, if somebody, for example raises a criticism against a government policy, then whether or not his or her criticism is valid, the Act can still be used to silence the academic. No, I don't agree. Depends on how, where you're saying it. Suppose you've organised a seminar and you present a paper, and you give your views. That's academic freedom. Within the confines of the seminar, anybody can stand up and criticise or talk about your paper, disagree with you and so on. And you can defend or not defend. That is what I mean by academic freedom. But, if you, if you out of the blue you just come out and you just criticise without any platform or anybody to act on, I think people may take it negatively. And they're saying, you're purposely doing it to criticise whereas your intention may not be so. Er, so I think this is a very delicate issue. I, for one, would, er, would seriously question my academic who just goes to the press one fine day and talks about whatever he wants to say, which is quite highly critical, for example, for the first time, ok. I would think, like, if you have such an important idea to tell, say to government, or to another body, why don't you use the channel that we have? Which is what? An academic journal? One is an academic journal. We should publish but these people may not read. Another one is of course to come up with the idea and go to the proper platform because as far as I know, the government is very open. Every ministry that I know of has got this committee that deals with other agencies or they invite people from universities and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and so on to come and have dialogues with them. Now, you are at liberty to present your ideas but in a way that they feel is not ridiculing them, not saying they are stupid. I don't see why we should do that. I think we should work in a very constructive way, er, and that is why I say it goes back to the motive. Why are you doing it? You sincerely want to work with government and here is your idea, then do it. Now, it's different when you've done it and they still don't pay heed, ah, then that's a different thing altogether. Then perhaps you need to use other means, if it's something that is critical, if it's something that is really necessary that it should be said. But, I cannot see a situation like that happening. I have not seen and I am old enough, and I have gone through, and I have worked with NGOs, and we have made representations, we haven't had to go and demonstrate. We bring our ideas to the table, if they think it's a jolly good idea, they take it up and they do it. If they don't, they'll tell you, 'I think this is not workable.' And they tell you why. So, this academic freedom comes with responsibility. You cannot have any freedom without responsibility and that responsibility is really in your intention and your motive. Are UKM staff and students expected to sign the Aku Janji pledge which is another bone of contention for some people who say that there isn't enough academic freedom?
Ya, it's again linked to this thing - you are serving (us, the government) and we are employing you, and we would expect you to, ah, follow the policy set by the institution. I think it's tied to that kind of general concept about belonging to an institution and subscribing to its philosophy, and not doing anything that would bring ill-repute to the institution. So, it's a kind of, ah, a promise, perhaps. Maybe, stronger than promise?
A pledge? Mmhmmm, don't know what to call it actually! (chuckles) I don't know what to call it but almost like a contract. It's almost like, 'I'm going to take you. You're going to work with me. I respect the work that you do. I'll take your ideas but you have to accept - because you're coming to work for me - you have to accept my philosophy and the ideas that we have in this institution.' If not, it's going to be anarchy. People come and work in an institution and they don't subscribe to the philosophies, the principles and the values of that institution. What do you think? But isn't the Aku Janji pledge or contract an additional layer where the academic and student, are in a sense saying that they will not challenge government which is ultimately, in the case of public universities, your employer, right? And that becomes problematic because then are you saying that academics are not allowed to question government policy? Ya, if you take it like that. I suppose this is open to interpretation by different universities. But I would take it that, you come and you're willing to (abide by the government's rulings) - because government pays our salary, right? I am also paid by government. That when I work in UKM, this is what the university is all about. You believe in it, and you would like to sign up to this and work with us. But, if you have something to say about the university, about the policy, then say it. Say it in the university. You have to go outside and say it? And this is exactly what I tell the students. But I think the spirit of the Aku Janji is not about being in line with the spirit of the university. It's about being in line with government. Ya, we are government, aren't we? We are salaried by government! Government gives us money to run the university. Are academics required to get the VC's permission before they can speak to the media? Ah, they can speak to the media, so long as I think they don't unnecessarily talk on areas that are not really in their field of expertise, ya. So, if it's in their area, people are asking them about, er, social problems or about medical treatments in particular areas, they are free to talk. And they don't really need the VC's express permission? No! They don't. But, if they want to talk about policies on health services or something, then I think they really need a group to, I would advise them, if you have this, you better go and talk to the Ministry of Health and discuss with them whether your ideas are good. Why do you have to go to the media, ok? For nothing, your ideas may be good but if you have not spoken to the ministry, then, you know, this is just human nature. Don't you think so? It's human nature. But, it doesn't happen because I think our people have got good linkages. They work well with the Ministry of Health, so I think, it's not a problem, if you want to do it properly. UKM was founded to be a national institution that used Malay as the medium of instruction. But, today, many see UKM more as an ethnic Malay institution rather than a national institution, primarily because a lot of, if not nearly all of, the top positions are held by Malays. And that's an unfortunate situation, obviously. What are your views on this? And do you think that faculty members of any ethnic background in UKM can rise based on meritocracy to positions of leadership in the university?
Ok, firstly, UKM perceived as a Malay institution, you will have to say, all the universities are that then, I suppose. Why single out UKM?
I guess, because of the 'National' part in your name? (Chuckles) That's the first misconception I want to correct. If you just single out and say UKM is Malay, eh, why not look at the other institutions, as well? So, that's one thing that I think, er, I would say is (a) prejudice. Secondly, if you look at our student population, we're not a Malay institution. Our student population almost accurately reflects the population in this country. And we pride ourselves on it because we feel that now we can do a lot of things that will be national in character and be a model for the nation, in terms of unity and so on. We can get our students to do this and we can be the model for the country. So, actually, it's an advantage. Now, with regards to staffing, because of this perception you've just told me, ok, we've not been able to recruit the non-Malays. Because they think it's Malay. So, it's a vicious cycle that we are going to break, ya. So, we have informed the deans. Actually, it's merit. But if you don't come, then the good Malays come in, and they are good, it's not that they are no good. They are good, ya. But because the non-Malays do not come because of this perception, then we do not have them. But now, we will actively go and recruit and we welcome applications from them to join us. Now, once we have the pool, I don't see why they cannot rise. Ya, if they are doing work and so on. In fact, I already have the deputy director of Ikmas (Institute of Malaysia and International Studies), Prof (Dr) Tham Siew Yean. The deputy director of Pusat Pembangunan Akademik (Centre for Academic Advancement) is Prof Imran Ho (Abdullah), and oh, we've got a couple of others. And I've been working and I do take notice. For me, if you work and you produce, your performance is good, I'm race-blind actually. So, you're actively trying to develop a culture where people are confident that it is meritocracy which will take them upwards? Yup, because I have set the criteria. And they all know what I need in a leader because these are leadership positions, ya. To be the faculty dean or deputy dean or head of programme or chairman of schools, and director of institutes and so on. The first thing I did when I came in was to say what are the things I look for. Now, I know you're good, your research, your content-wise, you're ok, right. What I'm looking for is leadership ability, ability to communicate, ability to handle crisis, and so on. But do you think that, until there is a diversity of races in key leadership positions in the university, people will continue to have this perception that it has become a Malay ethnic institution rather than a more multi-racial, national institution? Well, I hope my being here as vice-chancellor will also change this perception because I've never been known to be mono(-race), ya. All my work, all my life, it's reflected in my voluntary work as
well, and I work in a multi-cultural environment and I value that. I really value that. So, I hope that perception will change, even with the change of my being here as vice-chancellor, I hope that will substantially change the perception of the public.
Ok. You're the second woman to be appointed VC of a public university, after Datuk Rafiah Salim at Universiti Malaya. Do you think this is a mark of progress for women in Malaysia?
Of course. What do you expect me to say? You can expect a few more (grins).
Do you think it's taken too long for women to be appointed VC?
(Laughs) Er, let's say that, er, there's always a time. The time will come. The other day somebody said, what (was it)? 'Great things come for those who wait'. So, women have been waiting.

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