Former Court of Appeal judge Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, who taught at Universiti Malaya for 11 years, laments that the situation today is far different from the 1960s.
He said the government has gone too far with regard to curtailing academic freedom in local varsities and thus robbed these institutions of their lustre.
This, he added, has dampened the academic spirit and contributed to the drop in rankings.
Stressing that academicians have the right to express themselves, Mohamad Ariff noted that the decline started with the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA).
"Now it had led to another dimension where academicians are not allowed to express themselves freely. That is not right.
"They (the government) have to re-look this. If you want quality university education, quality universities, we must build a solid foundation on the ground of academic freedom.
"There are limits (to academic freedom) no doubt. But in our case, we have done a bit too far in dampening the academic spirit to pursue knowledge," he said in an interview.
Justice Ariff - who retired as a Court of Appeal judge on Jan 22 - had previously studied Economics at Universiti Malaya. He took up law at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he also pursued his masters.
He came back in the 1970s to teach in Universiti Malaya - which is noted as the country's oldest university - then left the academia and went to do private practice in 1985.
Justice Ariff was appointed a judicial commissioner in September 2008 and confirmed a judge in 2010 before being elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2012.
Besides practising as a lawyer, he had prior stints at the Securities Commission as director of the market supervision division and as the director of Futures Trading.
The former judge wrote landmark judgments against the Parliament's move in suspending remuneration on Puchong MP Gobind Singh Deo back in 2012. He was also among the panel members in the Teoh Beng Hock appeal, and was one of the judges presiding over Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad's charge under the Peaceful Assembly Act.
It is noted that his judgment on Gobind's case has been upheld by the Federal Court.
In describing the situation in Universiti Malaya back in the 1960s, he said that the atmosphere in Pantai Valley “was electric, the minute you enter the university”.
'You were allowed to think'
“Things were free; you were allowed to think and read books to expand your mind's horizon. As a young man out of school, your mind would absorb knowledge like a sponge. You will grow on knowledge.”
Pantai Valley, he added, became a centre for knowledge where outsiders would come and deliver talks - be it lecturers from other universities, politicians, or NGO people.
“As a student there, I would attend the talks. People came - with the undergraduates among them - giving quality presentations and talking like lecturers. It was a fantastic feeling, as the speakers all knew their stuff.
“They talked about economics with facts and figures to argue with them. Their observation was not on the basis of superficial knowledge, but actual statistical output. That was the university I saw. Unfortunately, this is not the university which I am seeing today. It is sad.”
“Once you destroy the fountain of knowledge it gets muddy,” he explained, in urging the government to rethink their concept of academic freedom.
Justice Ariff said there is nothing to fear (from academic freedom), as it is merely academic discourse.
He stressed that it is a place for you to present your views, and for others to present theirs.
“It's all about persuasion, in advancing the frontiers of knowledge. Academicians like to be free and that is why they are in academia.
“They do not like to work in a situation where they are controlled. They like to be free... Thankfully, I had exposure outside (overseas) as well. When I came back in the 1970s, things were still good but that was the tail end,” he expressed.
Justice Ariff (left) described the country's tertiary education as not progressing, and that it has instead descended to its current position.
“That is why (when) you asked me if I want to teach, I say I do not want to. The atmosphere is not there.
“I would like to teach, but in the current atmosphere I do not want to teach,” he responded, when asked whether he intends to impart his knowledge back to universities.
Justice Ariff observed that there are not many quality lecturers, even by our country's academicians.
That is why he prefers to watch lectures on YouTube, where he can listen to good quality law lectures from Harvard, Yale or his alma mater, LSE.