Curtin University is in PR hell this morning after thousands of angry Malaysian students hammered the institution’s Facebook page to slam an honorary doctorate awarded to Rosmah Mansor, the controversial wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Last week Curtin vice-chancellor Jeanette Hacket presented the unpopular spouse with the gong, ostensibly for her commitment to early childhood education. But Mansor, likened to Imelda Marcos, is a hated figure among the 2500-strong Malaysian student body at its Sarawak campus that tips millions each year into Curtin’s Australian coffers.

Overnight, angry comments on Curtin’s Facebook wall were running at a rate of two a minute as dissenters spiralled into the thousands, highlighting her ostentatious displays of wealth and alleged involvement in a murder/sodomy scandal. In the most popular post, one student ripped up their Curtin Bachelor of Applied Science and posted the photo, attracting a massive 1400 “likes”.

Some Facebookers described the award as a ham-fisted attempt to curry official support and hoard Malaysian cash — but Curtin’s decision is likely to go down in the annals of public relations history as a revenue-draining balls-up of the highest order.

In its original, since altered media release announcing the award, Curtin added insult to injury by referring to Mansor as the Malaysian “First Lady”, a faux-pas that enraged monarchists who pointed out the title is reserved for the Queen.

In a note posted on Facebook to staunch the bleeding, Hacket accepted that “the decision to make this award has attracted criticism. We also accept that our use of the term ‘First Lady’ has offended some people, and apologise for this. We will no longer use that term, and have reissued our media statement with this change made.”

The reaction on the university’s official page swiftly turned nuclear: “It is quite amazing that Curtin U had chosen to ignore the sentiments of Malaysians who are very well aware of Rosmah’s notorious reputation. God, don’t the researchers at CU read?,” said Tony Yap. “Shame on you! You have no integrity. This woman is part of a government that is corrupt, racist, oppressive etc.,” noted Anthony Meow Meow. “Curtin, last choice of mine when I get to go to university.. what a judgement of error!,” Ming Xuan Choong said.

Derrick Lee highlighted Mansor’s chequered past: “I’m just glad that I’m not one of your graduates! Not even Michelle Obama has a PHd for contributing so much to the US and not to mention, she doesn’t use up a lot of taxpayers’ money and certainly doesn’t follow his husband on a shopping trip!”

Sudheesh Bhasi said the decision would reverberate around the region: “Shame on you Curtin. You have just lost a huge number of potential students from not only Malaysia but the whole of South East Asia, one of your big markets because everyone in this region would not be associated with someone as tainted as Rosmah.”

Some Facebook commenters also expressed anger over the Lynas rare earth refinery, spuriously linking its tentative government approval to the Curtin gong. Malaysia’s opposition has pledged to scrap the plant if it gains power at national elections expected in the first half of this year.

Curtin maintains the award was doled out to recognise Mansor’s humanitarian work in establishing 600 early childhood centres, even though she appears to have simply stamped her name on a pre-arranged allocation of taxpayer funds.

Last year, Mansor courted controversy after she claimed the Japanese tsunami was a “lesson” to the world as the stricken country was still searching for survivors four days after the disaster hit.

The university also has campuses in Sydney and Singapore in addition to its Sarawak and Bentley bases. Curtin is Australia’s second largest provider of international offshore education.

Peter Fray

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