Scholarship on the scrap heap of an ailing higher education

First published in The Malay Mail on 29th January 2014.

As someone in the business of reading, writing, and reviewing academic articles, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writing academic articles is not easy and it rarely gets any easier after years, even decades (so I’m told) in academia.

So when someone or a team of authors produces a poor paper, it is quite forgivable but not forgivable enough to be granted a publication in a decent journal or book.

Recently, a dear friend emailed me a copy of a journal article on whether LGBT identities were natural or an “ideology.” The article was written by two authors affiliated with a public university in Malaysia and published in a journal of biological science even though the methods for investigating the object of study have nothing to do with biology or the sciences.

Besides being riddled with many grammatical errors, the article is a weird composite of government propaganda, superficial theology, journalism, and a few scholarly citations. It cites the prime minister’s branding of LGBT communities as a “scourge” and state-sanctioned measures to “correct” these communities so that they become more hetero and normative.

Passages that allude to homoerotic activity from the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah are thrown in for good measure as if an authoritative definition of contemporary non-normative sexuality can be gleaned from them.

To find an answer to their research question, an interview with a “former LGBT practitioner” was conducted in which the informant was asked a variety of questions framed in a pathologising manner (Is your identity a disease? Do you have a “real” type of body? When did you start noticing these symptoms?).

Like a cipher, the informant responds in an obedient fashion, parroting anti-LGBT truisms long debunked by experts, activists, and LGBT communities.

The boogeymen of LGBT discourse—liberalism and human rights—are invoked and mutually reinforce each other in both the literature review and findings, making the study itself redundant.

What is there to investigate when the authors already know their answer before carrying out their qualitative research? What is the point of an objective “scientific” study when they have pre-judged categories like “menace” and “disease” for LGBT identities?

Every argument in this article will laughed out of town by the academic community committed to the field of Queer Theory and Gender Studies.

According to the authors of the article, “LGBT” is at once a “sexual orientation”, a “habit”, “abnormal instinct”, an “attitude”, and a product of the “ideology of free sex.” These contradictory claims seem to be plucked out from nowhere no thanks to a cavalier grasp of concepts.

This academic article is an alarming indicator of how awful Malaysian higher education can be on different levels; from the teaching of students, their research training, the supervision by members of the academic staff, the quality of written work that is passed off as “research”, to the ethos of the researching and teaching members of faculty.

How did such an article manage to be published in an academic journal, a vital currency in an academic career, at all? It would be too easy to assume that the authors are ignorant or lackeys of the government and religious authorities. We can start with the structural problems in Malaysian higher education. The abandonment of the humanities and social sciences in Malaysian universities is a major factor in the production of appalling research.

Poor funding, no thanks to the undervaluing of the humanities and social sciences, has driven away many talented researchers and teachers. Poor funding also means poorer resources for research. Subjects in the humanities and social sciences do not need laboratories and heavy equipment that are worth hundreds of thousands of ringgit.

But scholars of these fields do require generous funding for field research, conferences abroad, plenty of new books, and access to a variety of international journals subscribed by university libraries.

Without access to supervision and mentoring by scholars who have published in decent journals and access to many good books and journals, those with an intention to produce good research will be lost at sea with a broken compass. Structural limitations lead to low research output and ultimately, low academic standards.

However, not all in the humanities and social sciences in Malaysia are doomed. A few universities, some born as fraternity twins with another foreign university, have attracted research-active academics keen on reviving the humanities and social sciences, not least the study of gender and sexuality.

To cite Michel Foucault, there is power and desire in knowledge production. This makes academic knowledge production anywhere, not just in Malaysia, a less innocent enterprise than what many believe. Cloaked in scholarly language, pernicious ideas can gain an air of authority or worse, “truth.” This is why government propaganda masking as research is dangerous.

This does not mean that Queer Theory and Gender Studies are neutral in their approach to gender and sexuality either. They are products of a particular time, place, and people that later developed in a particular, if more globalised, direction. Most are Western in origin and derive from psychoanalysis, Western philosophy, and activist literature that require a reframing from a decolonising lens.

If Malaysian scholars wish to be recognised for their intellectual output in the study of gender and sexuality, they must participate in the existing dialogues, rather than abusing the modes of intellectual production in the service of repressive politics and state religion.

Higher education in Malaysia is treated like a commodity that can be bought and sacrificed at the altar of party politics. And like commodities that have no long-term intrinsic value, it is disposable and destined for the scrap heap once it has served a poorly conceived purpose.

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