Malaysia rejects Nobel prize winner

Onairconversation, November 5, 2008


Radio Australia recently aired a conversation bet hese fellow about Iranian Nobel prize winner.

A top university in Malaysia has withdrawn an invitation to 2003 Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi to give a speech on Islam, because of objections from Iranian students. Ms Ebadi, an outspoken critic of Iran's human rights record, had been due to deliver an address titled "Islam and Cultural Diversity" at University Malaya next month. The Iranian human rights lawyer is the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. MU's vice-chancellor Rafiah Salim denied there was pressure from the government to cancel the event.

Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Tony Pua, Opposition MP

Sen Lam: “Malaya University says it was not pressured to cancel the talks but there are reports that the foreign ministry advised the University to withdraw the invitation. Might there be pressure from Iran to cancel the talk do you think?

Tony Pua: ‘I think that's probably right to assume that there was definitely pressure. The University acted in response to this pressure and cancelled this particular talk, so I have little doubt that that is the case.

Sen Lam: ‘What do you think this says about MU as the nation's top seat of education?

Tony Pua: ‘I think this is one of the symptoms, the fact that the University is highly politicised, many of these decisions are actually looked at by the government of the day, and any particular decision that doesn't fall in line with the government's policies be it on race politics, be it on the history, be it on religion, be it on politics you usually get questioned by the government and the decision will actually get reversed.

Sen Lam: ‘Well MU's Vice Chancellor says Shirin Ebadi's invitation was withdrawn out of respect for Iranian students at MU. Does MU have strong links with Iranian universities?
Tony Pua: ‘I seriously do not think so, I think the Malaysian University is an institution that is largely catered towards the local population, the foreign population in the campus is very, very small and it's very limited very much to post graduate students who are there to do one or two years courses. Under graduates are strictly limited to Malaysian students. So the fact that it's respect for Iranian students I think that's probably not the case.

Sen Lam: ‘Some observers say it's not healthy for a university such as MU and indeed any university to be pressured by political interests. Has there been much reaction from Malaysian academics?

Tony Pua: ‘The problem with Malaysian academics is they very much fall in line with what is the political trend of the day, because of the more restrictive guidelines and code of ethics that they have to abide with is a strict contractual guideline that they have to abide with. Their willingness to speak out against these issues is very limited. So you will not find that kind of up in arms when issues of academic freedom, about political freedom are raised in a university. So until the day where restrictive laws such as the ISA are repealed you will continue to find that our academia will remain subservient to the policies of the day.

Sen Lam: ‘Well Shirin Ebadi of course was well known as a human rights lawyer in Iran, and indeed she has defended people accused of political and security crimes in Iran. Do we know whether her address might have been related specifically to human rights?

Tony Pua: ‘I would think that it would have been related to human rights and how that functions within the confines of the religion of Islam. I find the banning frankly speaking quite ludicrous because the fact of the matter although she is nobel laureate, no machination of this Iranian in Malaysia is actually very low. So she could have come, give her lecture and left without too much fanfare. So the fact that she is actually even banned is something that I will look at quite with a type of interest.

Sen Lam: ‘And do you think the Malaysian authorities might have been jumping at shadows, and if so why were they doing that?

Tony Pua: ‘That's exactly what I've been saying which is to say that she's a nobel laureate, she can come to Malaysia, I can tell you that probably 95 to 98 per cent of the population would not recognise her or know her or be interested in what she says. So the fact that they are jumping at shadows shows that the government of the day is very suspicious of any activities, anything that can bring the country or bring the country to a stage whereby we are concerned about the state of human rights or about religion in this country will result in these issues, will result in them canceling the talks, restricting academic freedom, freedom of the press and so on.

Sen Lam: ‘And just briefly Tony Pua do you find this disappointing in that Malaysian society might not be ready for such open and free debate?

Tony Pua: ‘Absolutely, I think one of the key problems that we face is that our academic freedom is pretty much limited as a result many of the top academics in the world do not come to Malaysia, they're not willing to come to Malaysia and that's reflected in the standing of our local universities in the world rankings for example, in recent years. For example the MU has been declining from the position of 89 to 169 to 192, and now we've fallen off the charts of the top 200 in the world. That is a sad reflection of the situation in Malaysia.

24.10.2008 – 2000 HRS
Monitored by Norliah Sapiee



Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi should be allowed to speak at a Malaysian university, Malaysia's Foreign Minister has reportedly said. The statement is an apparent U-turn on the part of the Malaysian government. Two days ago foreign ministry officials advised the university to withdraw the invitation to Ms Ebadi, an outspoken human rights lawyer. But now Foreign Minister Rais Yatim has told the Star daily he "would like Dr Ebadi to be invited to the forum". "Malaysia should allow the freedom of expression and criticisms at the highest level. I will go and investigate this matter," he added.

Ms Ebadi, who won the peace prize in 2003, has often found herself at odds with the Iranian government over her human rights work. Her invitation to speak on Islam and cultural diversity at the University of Malaya was withdrawn on the advice of the foreign ministry, reports said. But Mr. Rais described the decision to retract the invitation as "unfortunate". He said that the advice was "not official" and said he had not been consulted.

The speech was supposed to begin a series of talks in Malaysia and Thailand over the next few months. Other speakers include fellow Nobel laureate President Jose-Ramos Horta of East Timor and American activist Jesse Jackson. In her capacity as a lawyer, Ms Ebadi has defended many people accused of political and security crimes in Iran, and campaigned for greater rights for women and children. She has faced numerous death threats and hostility in the Iranian media, and the Iranian government banned her Centre for Protecting Human Rights in 2006.

24.10.2008 – 2100 HRS