By Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi
This article is in reference to the recent act of canceling an online talk by Ramli Ibrahim on Hindu Performing Arts.
Ramli Ibrahim himself is a professional performer of traditional dances of many cultures.
One of the important aspects of nation-building that is lacking in this country is the sharing and appreciation of other cultures like those of the Kadazan, Murut, Dayak, Iban and Orang Asli.
The cancellation by UTM said to be the recommendation of their 'Islamic Center' poses serious questions on the role of the university as a place to enlighten minds or a place to condition knowledge based on a narrow perspective of religious tolerance.
The issue also raises the questionable role of universities in nation building with regards to knowledge of a shared heritage in arts.
I remember a time when a public university in Malaysia had organized a seminar to expound the dangers of the LGBT community to Islam and the Malays.
I am not certain if the seminar had called the LGBT community to defend their stand but it became a controversial issue of conditioning certain views deemed mainstream.
There was also another time when another public university organized a seminar on the dangers and threat of Christianity and Christianization.
I am uncertain if the proper speakers for Christianity were invited.
If in both cases the 'other' side were not thoroughly represented then the university's role approaches that as a propaganda entity.
I also still remember how the gates of Universiti Malaya were closed and the electricity shut down just so to avoid Anwar Ibrahim to come and make his speech.
The same hilarious thing also occurred at another so called 'Islamic' university. The hilarious thing was that Anwar was one of the the founders of that university.
For me, a 34-year academic veteran, the university is a place to question tradition and to discover new information, perspectives and narratives that were not given out in social or religious circles in society.
If a university does not produce new and meaningful knowledge then the university approaches that of a worker training center at best and a propaganda machine at worse.
With respect to the issue of 'offending some people' that was stated as the reason for the cancellation, I am most surprised at this position. Who are the people that would be offended? Will Ramli Ibrahim offend the Hindus?
I think the Hindus would be proud that a Malay-Muslim personality is honoring their traditional art form.
Will Ramli offend the Malay-Muslim society? I need to remind the 'scholars' at that university that the Malays were once Hindus and Buddhists for a very long period of time as evidenced by the stone inscriptions and Lembah Bujang building remains.
The scholar Kassim Ahmad pointed out that the Malay Language of old consist of nine different tongues which included Arabic, Sanskrit and Indian origins. Hang Tuah himself was said to have learned altogether 12 languages to navigate the Malay world at his time.
It certainly seems that the Malays of old were more intellectual and open minded then some Malays at the higher education institution in the modern day.
When I was studying at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, I took two semesters of Art History.
As I watched the slides and read through the thick and large Gardener's Art History book, I remember being shocked at the many naked figures of men and women in Greek and Roman sculptures as well as the paintings of the Renaissance.
I was also curious to see the many images and portrayals of Jesus and the Apostles in Romanesque and Gothic Cathedrals. I had never even been to a cathedral at that time.
When the lecturer placed extra reading materials at the library, I was one of the few who went to read them.
I remember reading the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on Christianity. When he made references to the Bible, I bought one at a second hand price. It was only then that I began to make sense of the design of the cathedrals and to read the many sculpture and paintings in Western Art History.
I wonder now if I would be able to give a lecture on Western Art form in a Malaysian university or would it 'offend' the Islamic 'authorities' in the university.
I give lengthy description of Christianity and its belief system in my first year Architecture History class in talking about the many church architecture in Western History.
I also remember a time when my Art History lecturer invited a few of us for a private discussion on a book by Eknath Easwaran titled A Dialogue with Death.
After the dinner meeting, I went to the book shop and bought two of Easwaran's books on that same topic and another one on 'Meditation'. These two books introduced me to the highly rational thinking of the Hindus concerning the Self and the manner of our negative thoughts and emotions. It was my first introduction into Hindu philosophic teachings.
I am glad that I had gotten a Public Service Department Scholarship to study in the USA. Much of who I am and why I take such 'controversial' perspectives and thoughts is a product of the freedom of thinking allowed in universities in the West.
When I began teaching at a public university in Malaysia, there were no more interesting and open thoughts for me until I began to attend forums and discussion groups outside of the fences and massive gateways of the university.
When a university advocates the closing of the mind to ideas, perspectives, narratives of the arts, history and spirituality of others, the institution ceases to be a meaningful bridge between civilizations across cultural, religious and political divides as well ceases also to be a link to the immensity of knowledge throughout the dawn of enlightened human beings.
Without an 'open thought university' we will all be in our own social, political and religious graveyard of ignorance.
(Professor Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor at a local university.)