Saturday, April 27, 2013

GE 13 : Activist Academics

Western universities have a reputation for rigorous thinking and objective analysis – that's why many Malaysians value the experience of getting a degree in places like the UK, Australia and the US. So it's natural that observers of Malaysia's general election will seek opinions of academics from these places. After all, if you're not in the same country you're less likely to have your own biases, right?
Unfortunately, this perception of objectivity is increasingly being used for political ends. We have noticed a growing trend of 'activist academics' who exploit their position by dressing up their opinions as facts. Local academics are more easily identified by political allegiance -at least Dr. Ong Kian Ming has nailed his colours to the mast in standing as a candidate for DAP.
We're used to Anwar Ibrahim talking down our country for his own political ends, but it's sad to see the same being done by the opposition's international allies. Aside from whatever political views you have, we can all agree that analysis of our election is being badly served by agenda-driven academics.
Take Bridget Welsh, an American-trained academic based in Singapore. She is possibly the most frequent academic commentator of the Malaysian election, used by many international media sources as an independent voice. But how many of them realise that just a few years ago, she worked for the opposition?
Welsh is a regular contributor to Malaysiakini, the pro-Opposition news portal. She is extremely close to many Opposition politicians including those from the PKR and PAS. And most damningly of all, this so-called independent voice provided advice and recommendations on political campaign and strategies to the DAP and PKR during the 2008 General Election. Clearly, she's closely aligned with the Opposition – and has made their agenda her own.
Just listen to her interview with Radio Australia this week, where she concluded by stating: "[Malaysian voters] have a choice between sticking with the status quo or actually choosing people who have a record of being in state government for five years, who have had a reasonably solid record of addressing these issues, particularly in areas of governance."
In this interview she also did her best to rubbish the PM's new candidates, claiming that on average there was a 50% turnover every election anyway and that when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came back in 2004 it was 70%. But does this factual academic declaration stand up to scrutiny?
In 2013, 49% of BN's state candidates – and 33% of its parliamentary candidates – are new. The 2008 figures were 20% and 21% respectively. This time around, BN is fielding more than twice as many new candidates as last time. No wonder Najib is talking about "BN Baru".
This sloppiness extends to her on-the-record statements, too. Welsh seems more interested being a quote generator than providing academic insight. Her comments to Bloomberg this week were typically confused: Reacting to Najib's remarks about the impact an opposition victory would have on the stock market, she said, "it shows he's getting defensive and moving into attack mode... he appears to be painting it in black and white as a zero-sum game".
Even if we ignore the fact that Welsh has long standing and documented friendships with key members of the Opposition, or that her commentary and "analysis" of Malaysia and its election has been largely agenda-driven, the truth is that she has fatally undermined her own claims to impartiality. By working for the opposition openly during the last election – and campaigning covertly during this one – Bridget Welsh has revealed she is no independent voice, but just another one of Anwar's activist academics.

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