Limkokwing university racism allegations mount
A podcast by ex-staff members has levelled fresh allegations of racism against Malaysian university Limkokwing, with the country's Ministry of Higher Education stating that they are set to investigate the institution
By Yao-Hua Law
On 29 July, audio from an interview posted online made fresh allegations of abuse and racism against Malaysian private university Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT), the latest in a series of racial discrimination claims against the institution since early June.
In the interview, former LUCT students and staff members, Black British woman of Sudanese origin Malaz El and ‘Vee’ from eSwatini, shared their experiences with racism at LUCT as part of a podcast called UnMute: The LKW Leaks, created by Malaz to shed light on the institution.
In previously unheard allegations, Vee revealed that senior management berated her and other Black staff daily, also claiming that a Black staff member was told that Africans are “unsanitary” and “have AIDs and [are] dying”.
Similar allegations surfaced in early June with widely circulated photos of an apparently racist billboard inside LUCT featuring the university’s founder and president, Lim Kok Wing, surrounded by Sierra Leonian students in a passionate furore. A caricature of Lim Kok Wing with a cheetah stood below three words: KING of AFRICA.
Public outrage culminated in a petition on June 7 that lambasted LUCT for portraying Lim Kok Wing as a “hero” and “saviour” of Africa. The petition received more than 10,000 signatures. Since then, the university has removed the billboard and apologised for “any misunderstanding caused”. Lim Kok Wing himself has kept mum.
In a written reply to the Globe on July 30, the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education revealed that it had met with LUCT representatives and has decided to “proceed with investigations according to procedures” provided by the Malaysian Private Higher Education Institutions Act.
Specifically, the Ministry noted that the Act stipulates that membership of such institutions “must be opened to all; irrespective of gender, race, religion or class”. The Ministry can “take strict action towards those that are found guilty of [violating] this Act”.
Despite repeated requests to LUCT and Lim Kok Wing specifically for comments, they have yet to provide any as of publishing.
Meanwhile, many ex-staff members of LUCT, recounting years of racism and abuse by its management, continue to call for an overhaul of the institute’s management. They have banded together to raise awareness on social media and spur Malaysian authorities to take action.
The group has compiled materials – testimonials, phone messages, audio recordings – to support their allegations. They have also posted a petition demanding Lim Kok Wing’s resignation and corrective actions to abolish discrimination and worker abuse in the university.
The allegations, if true, would hurt not only the standing of LUCT, but also the reputation of higher education in Malaysia. “LUCT can downgrade the whole of Malaysia’s higher education if people know what is happening in that school,” said Naima Abdhirahman Moalim from Somalia, who studied and worked in LUCT between 2016-2018.
“This is just the beginning, just the Africans speaking. Imagine if the Asian students, the Indians … the Middle Eastern students speaking up, it would blow up a lot of things,” she added.
When asked, the Ministry said that the impact of the allegations cannot yet be assessed pending investigations. “However, if not carefully dealt with, it may affect the reputation of higher education institutions among international students,” it said.
Any fallout could be aggravated by LUCT’s extensive international reach – it has twelve campuses worldwide, including several in Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho and Sierra Leone, with plans for more African campuses. LUCT has its flagship campus in Cyberjaya, Malaysia and claims to host some 30,000 students from over 160 countries, marketing itself on its diversity.
The university’s founder, Lim Kok Wing, 73, is an advertising veteran in Malaysia who famously crafted slogans and posters for Nelson Mandela’s victorious election campaign. Lim’s long list of awards (over 700, says his online profile) includes the Commonwealth Champions Award in 2017 and the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in Silver from South Africa in 2015.
In a radio interview on June 11, the manager of the LUCT Art Department who designed the billboard apologised for having “crossed the line” in his pursuit of a “creative and fun” design. He revealed that the management liked his initial poster design and enlarged it for public display.
At a time when societies worldwide are reassessing racial inequality in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in a multiracial country like Malaysia where racial privilege is a historical, pervasive and sensitive issue, LUCT’s tone-deaf billboard could be believable as a terrible but one-off misjudgement.
Except that it seems not.
“The racism there is towards Africans, Asians, and also people with hijab,” said an ex-staff who requested she be called Maggie. Maggie, a Chinese Malaysian, graduated from LUCT and had worked there for three years before resigning in 2018 when she “could not take the injustice anymore”.
“They always put the White [staff and students] above all of us. The ones that get the most [racism] are our Black friends,” said Maggie.
Racism at LUCT was more painful than off campus because it is a university … The university should be a teacher, to teach good from bad, to be a leader
Africa is a key source of foreign students for Malaysia, and make up almost one-fourth – around 25,000 – of international students in Malaysian colleges and universities, according to the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2015-2025. Yet according to studies done in 2014 and 2017, many African students experience racism in the country, and in 2014 Utusan Malaysia – one of the most influential newspapers in Malaysia – published an editorial that said the country could do without Pak Hitam (Malay for ‘Black fellow’).
“Racism at LUCT was more painful [than off campus] because it is a university,” said ex-LUCT staff member Moreblessing Shumba from Zimbabwe. “[The university should be] a teacher, to teach good from bad, to be a leader.” Shumba, who studied and worked at LUCT between 2009-2019, said she had also been shunned by landlords in Malaysia because of her skin colour.
Shumba recalled an incident when a LUCT vice-president pulled all Black performers out of a university performance as they argued that the Malaysian audience was afraid of Black people.
“They enforced that notion, instead of helping people dispel it,” she said. The vice-president in question, who has since left the institute, did not respond to interview requests.
International students and ex-staff members describe LUCT in dramatically different terms, like two opposing worlds separated by an employment contract.
A Nigerian PhD student, who only gave his first name as Yahya, praised LUCT as somewhere “you can never feel stress while you study here”. He found the staff at LUCT “a lot more reasonable” without the blatant racism displayed by his former supervisor at another Malaysian university.
He also spoke highly of Lim Kok Wing, and based on videos and what he has heard from students, Yahya concluded that the university’s founder is “a man of the people”, not a racist. “The ‘King of Africa’ title is an overstatement,” said Yahya, but he is not offended.
Like Yahya, many ex-LUCT staff had enjoyed their time as students at the university, but trouble emerged when they became employees.
Malaz did her Bachelors and Masters degrees in LUCT and worked there in 2016 after accepting a scholarship from LUCT with a five-year employment bond. LUCT paid her about RM5,000 ($1,170) a month.
“But only because I was British … if I was Sudanese, I would get only RM2,000 [$468],” said Malaz.
She learned, however, that a 21-year old White colleague in her team, who had only a professional diploma and worked fewer hours, was earning more than RM10,000. The average monthly salary for a degree-holder in Malaysia in 2017 was RM4,300.
In December 2016, Malaz terminated her employment bond and quit in protest of allegedly racist decisions made by senior management during a photoshoot for a billboard to advertise LUCT’s student diversity.
The first photo shoot featured 27 people, including six of dark skin tones. When Tiffanee Marie Lim, an LUCT vice-president and daughter of Lim Kok Wing, saw the photos she requested a reshoot with “more Caucasians” or to “replace people”. She then stated that she wanted “mostly White and stylish Asians” and “one Arab one light African”. The screenshots of Whatsapp conversations provided by Malaz could not be independently verified by the Globe.
“We lost it, we were sad, we were crying. We couldn’t believe our boss hated us. Racism is hate, there’s no denying it,” said Malaz.
Tiffannee Marie Lim did not respond to an interview request about the allegations.
Somalian Naima resigned in similar circumstances in June 2018 after she challenged Lim Kok Wing himself for prohibiting Africans from visiting a LUCT education fair in Malaysia. The Africans were Sierra Leonian students or LUCT staff who had passed by the education fair, said Naima.
In a WhatsApp office chat group, Lim Kok Wing (under his honorific name Tan Sri) can allegedly be seen to have said “Africans should not be at the fair”.
Naima, who said she had seen Lim Kok Wing excluding Africans from education fairs or VIP receptions on campus many times, finally snapped. “Nobody is going to speak up? Then I’m going to do it,” recalled Naima. She wrote “I can’t accept racism to that level” in the chat group and left it right after.
Lim Kok Wing responded by calling her “stupid and totally irrelevant” before later asking staff “to get rid of [Naima] for the blatant insult”.
“Everyone asked me to apologise,” said Naima. She did not.
Maggie, Malaz, Shumba and Naima also described a culture of bullying and harassment, with Lim Kok Wing and other vice-presidents berating staff members, often taunting employees to resign. They also alleged that LUCT withheld the certificates of scholarship recipients until they had fulfilled their employment bond, just as it did with Malaz.
Afraid of the consequences, foreign staff in LUCT often “run away”, said Naima. She recalls ex-staff members who headed straight to the airport after meetings and left the country without informing anybody.
Malaz and other ex-staff members also accuse Lim Kok Wing and his senior management of forcing non-academic staff to make up for a shortfall in lecturers. In 2018, the senior management of LUCT apparently demanded the scores of employees in its subsidiary company, Center for Content Creation (CCC), apply for teaching permits to qualify as lecturers on-campus.
“All of us were told that we must take the teaching permit [but] many of us did not find it relevant,” said an Malaysian ex-staff member from CCC, who requested to be called Timothy. CCC staff had to pay for the teaching permit themselves, while those who disagreed were assembled to meet Lim Kok Wing, he added.
Like any scandal, outrage and interest will eventually die down, but we know our efforts have not gone unnoticed
In an audio recording of said meeting, a man, alleged to be Lim Kok Wing, chided the CCC employees for questioning the opportunity from the university.
“When it is listed in your profile that you are a qualified lecturer as well, that’s good for you,” said the man, who was addressed in the recording as Tan Sri.
“If you are not happy with us, you can resign,” he then said three times in a row.
Two employees, apparently from India, objected. The man, believed to be Lim Kok Wing, told them to “pack your bag” and leave the room immediately. The two resigned soon after, Timothy recalled.
Eventually, some CCC employees applied but not all had to teach. Those who did not apply suffered no disciplinary actions either, said Timothy.
The Ministry explained to the Globe that individuals can apply for teaching permits which are compulsory for lecturers teaching at any private higher education institutions. The Ministry emphasises that “any practice of misuse of teaching permits is illegal” and institutions that have committed offences can be convicted and penalised. The Ministry accepts these complaints regarding teaching permits and requested supporting documents to aid the investigation.
Malaz and her group are encouraged by the Ministry’s swift action. But they know that public pressure is key in their push for change. Public interest in the controversy surrounding LUCT, however, appears to be waning fast.
“Like any scandal, outrage and interest will eventually die down, but we know our efforts have not gone unnoticed,” said Malaz. Her group plans to keep the momentum with more exposés on social media and podcasts of victim interviews.
At the end of her recorded interview this week, Vee said she knows “that all the tears we have cried for so many years have not fallen down in vain.”
They hope that through thorough investigation and corrective actions by Malaysian authorities, LUCT will transform into – in Shumba’s words – “a place where students can shine bright and workers [can] enhance their talents and not fear”.