'Our universities are the purveyors of an imperialist worldview’

In June last year an international conference on 'Decolonising Our Universities' was held in Penang, Malaysia. In his introductory speech to the conference, SM Mohamed Idris set out in stark terms the fundamental challenge facing scholars and academics in the Third World: 'Let us be honest with ourselves. Either we have the courage and determination to create our own socially useful sciences, or we should cease doing mimic or copycat social science.' We reproduce below the full text of his speech.

I AM neither a scholar nor an academic but an activist who grew up at a time when the victims of colonialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America were waging valiant struggles for justice, freedom, independence and liberation.

As with many anti-imperialists among my generation, the seeds of resistance to imperialism were sown at a very young age. Let me share here a personal experience which is still fresh in my memory.

As a young boy at the Anglo Chinese School in Penang - a Methodist missionary school - I defied my English teacher Miss Morton and refused to wear shorts to school. I was not going to allow any such alien imposition on me. I carried on wearing long trousers, to comply with the Muslim dress code, much to the annoyance of Miss Morton. That spirit of resistance still continues with me and with those anti-imperialists of my generation who are still alive.

When the Union Jack was lowered, we cheered believing that we had freed ourselves from the centuries-old shackles of colonialism, to stand tall among other nations, proud of our language, culture, traditions and knowledge systems.

That our belief was naive and misplaced was impressed upon me by an incident in 1987 during my visit to Kolkata with Claude Alvares and other colleagues from the Third World Network. We went to a restaurant for a meal but I was denied entry only because I was wearing a sarong.  To my dismay I realised Miss Morton was still around, even in the land of Mahatma Gandhi.

We failed to understand that colonialism had struck deep roots in our societies. Not only did it control our politics and economy, but more serious and damaging to the colonised, it was an insidious force that permeated all aspects of our lives to take total control of us.

My friends, look at us who are here today, people who are keenly aware of this malady that afflicts us. But whatever is said and done, how many of us would as a norm dress in our own native attire?  We would be too embarrassed to do so, we fear that it would not be acceptable and that we would be looked down upon.

This is a milder degree of this affliction.  In more serious cases there are those of us who resort to skin whiteners and surgery for double eyelids and bleach our hair blonde in the pursuit of transmuting ourselves from Asians to becoming fake Caucasians.

Web of lies

The colonialists, overcome by their rapacity, abandoned any sense of morality in their colonial exploits around the world. They built a web of lies - that the colonised were infantile, uncultured and grotesque beings who needed to be cultivated and saved.  In the worst cases, with indigenous peoples, they even denied them their humanity and committed genocide against them.

Lord Macaulay, who designed the Indian educational system, arrogantly declared 'that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.'.  This is a blatant lie as Europe borrowed heavily, without acknowledging, from the vast storehouse of knowledge of the Arabs, Indians, Chinese and the American Indians.

The colonial education system was the vehicle for propagating these lies. It was meant to produce an army of administrators, clerks, professionals and intellectual elite who would uphold and defend the colonial system. Their education cut them off from their historical and cultural roots and connected them to the world-view, values and norms of the West, which were internalised by them. 

The result of this radical social engineering was that it produced a local elite with colonised minds, crippled imagination and lacking in creativity and originality. It made a caricature of them, undermining their confidence, self-esteem and dignity. Their lifestyle, tastes and values were far removed from those of the ordinary masses and closer to their colonial masters. They were, as Macaulay would have put it, a class of persons Indian, Malay, Chinese, African in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.

When the colonialists folded their flags and left, power passed into the hands of the members of this class. They took charge of the institutions - the civil service, judiciary, police, universities etc. - created by colonialism to serve its interests, and continued to operate them without dismantling their philosophical and ideological underpinnings.

Our universities are the purveyors of the imperialist worldview and ideology. They play the role of perpetuating Western hegemony through their education models that are so destructive to our culture, language, way of life, knowledge systems and dignity.

To achieve true liberation and recover our authentic selves, we need to purge the West that is within us. As Ashis Nandy and others write in their book The Blinded Eye: 500 Years of Christopher Columbus:

'. the Columbus within may be an even greater obstruction than the Columbus without. His science, his economics, his attitudes towards nature, his perceptions of gender and health, his outlook on the Other and their languages have struck deep roots within us. Pulling out these institutions by the roots must cause great pain, but there is no compelling reason why these fundamental tasks must remain undone.'

Towards the task of purging the Columbus within us, Citizens International and Other India Press launched the Multiversity Project. We have had three international conferences on the subject of continuing Eurocentric dominance of the teaching and research at our universities. We have discussed redesigning of curriculum and issues of hegemony.  In spirit and in practice, we do not want to be part of an intellectual world in which we have only the role of peddlers and parrots.

At this conference - which is the first on decolonising universities, on making coursework independent of European influence either in theory or method - we thought we would signal the decolonisation process by asking brilliant academics to share their views of non-Eurocentric courses: how would these courses look like, would they be credible, and would they indeed be able to form the scaffolding of independent social science perspectives, not cloned any longer from European conceptions.

Can we go further and appropriate the freedom to include or reject those social sciences useless for us or incompatible with our religious compulsions and create our own new ones?

Let us be honest with ourselves. Either we have the courage and determination to create our own socially useful sciences, or we should cease doing mimic or copycat social science. Taking some elements from one and some from the other will produce a hybrid which will appeal to none or which may in fact be meaningless.

We want to regain our heritage that is endangered. We cannot be totally free and independent without removing the shackles that tie us down in subservience.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj:

'If British rule were replaced tomorrow by Indian rule based on modern methods, India would be no better, except that she would be able to retain some of the money that is drained away to England; but then India would only become a second or fifth nation of Europe or America.'

And that is precisely what we have done to ourselves. We have cloned ourselves to become English or American. Our independence did not free us but, unknown to us, has enslaved us further.

If Macaulay established interpreters to maintain their hegemony, then it is the duty of all of you who have awareness and knowledge to lead the way to reverse this control, and the place to start this is within our universities.

Even at our universities, to bring about such a change would be seen as a radical exercise.  So steeped in our psyche is the Western hold that to think in any other way is unimaginable for fear that we end up in poverty and backwardness - as if there were no other civilisation before the coming of the colonialists.

Change can happen. If you look at the media, for several decades everyone complained that the world media was controlled by a few Western agencies.  Al Jazeera broke that hold and introduced a wholly different, more attractive and more truthful way of looking at social events.

Look also to the buds of the Arab Spring.  For too long we thought that dictatorship and tyranny would be the permanent condition of the Arab world.  The courage to throw off the yoke of tyranny will bring Arabs change, just as the Turkish have forged ahead to be rid of military control.

International bodies like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have a sacred duty to perform which will not be performed by anyone else.  This is to conserve the cultures, the vast diversity of humankind, its languages, its traditional knowledge and skills. UNESCO cannot join the race to submerge and suppress these under a homogeneous, monolithic, flattened world culture that respects none. UNESCO should ensure that the social sciences remain as diverse as humankind and that the integrity of cultures and their knowledge are firmly protected and sustained.                                 

SM Mohamed Idris is Chairperson of Citizens International, which jointly organised the International Conference on 'Decolonising Our Universities', held in Penang, Malaysia, in June 2011, with the Universiti Sains Malaysia in cooperation with the Higher Education Leadership Academy of the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education. He is also Chairperson of the Third World Network.

*Third World Resurgence No. 266/267, October/November 2012, pp 14-15