THE axiom that an organisation reflects the character of its leadership is particularly resonant in the context of higher education in Malaysia, which currently finds itself at a crossroads. This piece delves into three illustrative incidents within Malaysian higher education institutions that spotlight not only the dire quality of leadership but also its profound impact on the staff and student experience, as well as on the essence of scholarship.

A Tragedy of Neglect: Consider the heartbreak of parents whose child, an international student at a prestigious Malaysian university, met an untimely death—a student missing from class for 11 days before being found deceased in their room, with the university oblivious to their absence. The failure of the emergency response system, coupled with the administration's delayed engagement with the grieving parents, exemplifies a chilling disregard for student welfare. Conversations with those connected to the university suggest a disturbing pattern of such incidents being systematically obscured.

Complicity and Corruption: In a separate instance, a staff member, discovered stealing from colleagues over several years, was allowed to resign with commendations—thanks to their connections with the university's upper echelons. This not only highlights a blatant abuse of power but also underscores a troubling culture of impunity that tarnishes the institution's reputation and integrity.

Ethical Erosion: Furthermore, the manipulation of academic contributions, the trivialisation of sexual harassment, and other safeguarding concerns being dismissed or inadequately addressed, betray a profound moral and ethical decay at the leadership level. Such practices not only undermine the core values of academic integrity but also signal a disturbing shift in the culture of higher education.

A Call for Renaissance: The root of these issues traces back to a glaring deficit of leaders with integrity and moral fortitude in the Malaysian higher education sector. Higher education institutions, ideally society's beacons of knowledge and ethical standards, now grapple with leadership that distorts their noble purpose. The infiltration of wannabe politicians and entrepreneurs into academia has had devastating consequences on societal values and future generations.

The prevailing sentiment among academics—that those capable of effective leadership are reluctant, while those in positions of power often lack the necessary competence or integrity—calls for a radical shift. It is imperative for academics who have traditionally shied away from leadership roles to step forward, embrace the mantle of leadership, and rectify the course. This is more than a call to action; it is a plea for a renaissance in the higher education sector, urging those with the capability and integrity to lead by example, restore ethical governance, and safeguard the sector from the corrosive influence of narcissistic leadership.

The state of higher education in Malaysia is a reflective mirror of its leadership. The incidents highlighted herein are not just isolated tragedies but symptomatic of a broader crisis of leadership. It is time for true academics to reclaim the narrative, champion integrity, and rekindle the sector's commitment to fostering a culture of accountability, excellence, and ethical leadership. Only then can Malaysian higher education hope to regain its lost glory and contribute meaningfully to the development of a just, knowledgeable, and ethical society.

Dr Rozilini Mary Fernandez-Chung PFHEA is a Life Member of PenDaPaT and an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.