PETALING JAYA – A sociology professor has urged the next president of the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) to reassess the idea of making the institution an Oxford for Muslim countries.

Syed Farid Alatas, a Malaysian attached to the National University of Singapore, said he believed local institutions should “get over this business” of wanting to emulate internationally recognised institutions, particularly Western ones, for the mere sake of it.

He said he was all for pushing IIUM towards high standards.

“But it shouldn’t mean we should model ourselves after Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or any of these universities for the sake of it because many aspects of their education models are not appropriate for us,” he told FMT.

The idea of turning IIUM into an Oxford has been articulated a number of times by its former president, Education Minister Maszlee Malik.

Maszlee recently announced that he had relinquished the presidency. Yesterday, the varsity said it had submitted the names of candidates to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who in turn submitted them to IIUM’s constitutional head, the Sultan of Pahang.

Syed Farid Alatas.

Farid said some universities abroad tended to marginalise non-Western voices and would teach Asian-related subjects, such as Eastern religions, from Eurocentric perspectives.

“This is understandably so because they are Europeans studying another society or civilisation,” he said.

“But we can’t adopt the same kind of approach in Malaysia because we are not merely studying Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, but understanding them through our own perspectives.”

He gave the example of European studies of Hinduism, saying the typical way would be to see the religion from a Christian point of view. This was opposed to the method of, for instance, the 12th century Muslim scholar Al-Biruni, who attempted to understand Hinduism, he added.

He noted that Europeans would typically assume that Hinduism, like Christianity, comes in different dominations, whereas it is in reality several different religions and the Hindus are variegated according to the deities they worship.

He also criticised what he called the “capitalistic approach” of Western universities, saying this had brought about an obsession with maintaining performance indicators and keeping or cancelling programmes according to their popularity.

“If a programme or department is not popular, it gets shut down, even though you can argue why it should be there. That’s why you see philosophy departments shutting down, for example.”

He also spoke of the “disease of wanting to go higher” in rankings and said it had infected many universities that follow Western models.

He alleged that this had resulted in dishonesty in academic practices, citing cases in which postgraduate students are required to put the names of their supervisors on their publications as co-authors although they haven’t done any of the work.

“This is done so the number of publications of the academic staff increases, and thus, their ranking in the system,” he said.

“This market-oriented attitude is damaging and a university cannot become great like this. The university should be about intellectual culture. It should be about passion and a profound interest in studying and it should be guided ethically so that this passion can grow.”

He also said local universities must work on ridding the Malay world of racial stereotyping, which he described as a legacy of European colonisation.

“In that sense, we cannot say we want any of our universities to be seen as the Oxford of the East or something like that since our universities still need to be decolonised,” he added.

He welcomed Maszlee’s decision to give up his university post, saying it would be better for non-politicians to helm educational institutions.

He said the IIUM president should at least be an established scholar and internationally recognised for his academic work.