Malaysia is soon becoming a digitised society where almost all information is put in the form of computer binary codes of 0 and 1. This is where consumerisation of information technology (IT) has happened and all information is available for almost everyone in the society. We have changed the way we communicate into more digitalised forms. E-cards, e-mails, Facebook postings, Tweets and WhatsApp messages have replaced the traditional letters and postcards.
Our phone calls are using voice over IP or Skype and we find information using Yahoo, Google or Wikipedia. Pictures and movies are now taken using digital cameras or smartphones and published on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube. We find our way using Waze, Google Maps on (again) our smartphones. And we also meet using Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams online from anywhere in the world. Abundance of information is accessible by everyone who has computers or smart devices anywhere and anytime.
As we are progressing towards a digitised society, we need public intellectuals who are able to shape public opinions or public dialogues about what things are important to the society. In addition, public intellectuals are able to propagate what should be thought and done in addressing issues that prevail in the society. However, before we even consider the activities or purpose of a public intellectual, we need to define what public intellectual is and who a public intellectual is.
In general, public intellectuals are people who think out loud in the public avenues about key issues of concern to the society in which they live. These are people who are making genuine intellectual contribution, communicating with a large audience and generating responses and arguments.
Public intellectuals are expected to engage with knowledge-sharing activities, give critics, comments, ideas and suggestions on current issues, public interest, government policies etc.
They would share on their expertise or research findings to supports the thoughts that are related to public interests.
Hierarchy of public intellectuals
As public intellectuals, they are trained in a particular discipline, such as management, biology, medical, economics, history, psychology, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such persons decide to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a “public intellectual”. From our observation and research, there are three (3) levels:
Level 1: A person who speaks and writes for the public exclusively about their disciplines. This kind of discourse is extremely important, and it involves good, clear, simplified explanations of, for example, the national debt, the strategic alignment of business in organisations, or the importance of having a corporate governance committee or whatever their subject may be.
Level 2: A person who speaks and writes about their discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it. A scientist in this category might include a lot of biographical material, glimpses into the society and anthropology of the culture of science.
Level 3: By invitation only. These are persons who stand for something far larger than the discipline from which they originated. A Level 3 intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise.
What do public intellectuals need?
In order to propagate an issue in the society, public intellectuals need a point of view that is a cause for them to ignite a society concern. Public intellectuals also need a little magazine or two for them to share their issues of concern and disseminate the idea. For example, a medical expert could actively respond to public outcry in response to the pandemic COVID-19.
As many issues could spark from informal chats and gatherings, public intellectuals need regular dinner parties to socialise and collect these issues from various sources. In addition, public intellectuals need cafeteria or other informal platforms filled with young adults arguing about their work so that emerging issues related to society could be discovered.
Importance of public intellectuals
Now that we know the importance of creating public intellectuals, what needs to be done next? Academic institutions need to promote their academicians to become public intellectuals. Public universities should be doing this, i.e. sharing their abundance of knowledge with the public.
Universiti Malaya (UM), for example, has begun promoting the academicians to appear on series of talks on television programmes on topics which they are expert in. More and more experts have managed to make contributions on topics which are current and related to public issues.
Another public university, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM), encourages academicians to contribute and share their knowledge and idea with the public using mass media in both digital and conventional ways. USIM had established a Webinar platform during COVID-19 for the purpose. This is in line with the USIM seven annual goals for 2020 to produce more public intellectuals for the country.
There are so many more things that can be done by the universities to promote public intellectuals in our society. The two mentioned above are just examples from the authors’ quick scanning of the topic. More parties could be involved in creating public intellectuals for the sovereignty of the society in Malaysia.
Dr Noor Ismawati Jaafar is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Business and Accountancy, Universiti Malaya (UM).
Dr Mohd Yahya Mohamed Ariffin is a Professor at the Faculty of Leadership and Management, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM).
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