By Kee Thuan Chye
MALAYSIAN university students must surely realize that they have more power now than they have ever had in the last four decades. This accounts for their robust participation in politics in recent days. Not only in university campuses, but also in the public sphere.
Suppressed for so long by the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), introduced in 1971 because the ruling party feared the rise of student activism, today’s students are breaking out.
The political landscape that emerged from the March 8 phenomenon has no doubt been an encouraging factor. Inspired by the aspiration of a more politically aware rakyat demanding greater democracy, students have been challenging university and government authorities by taking part in political activities they are banned from doing so by the draconian UUCA.
Their defiance has now been augmented by the revolutions spearheaded by youths in the Arab world. Like the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and others, they want democracy, social and political justice. They want to reclaim their right as citizens to take part in the political process. And rightly so.
Indeed, it can be argued that the UUCA contravenes Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which allows for freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of association. The Constitution does provide for the control of freedom of association but only on certain grounds, like the protection of national security, public order or morality. Political participation is not one of these grounds.
It doesn’t make sense anyway that university students are being deprived of their right to be politically involved when other Malaysian youths enjoy that right. In fact, it’s grossly unfair. Just the other day, a newspaper carried a story about a 20-year-old who had his barber design a Barisan Nasional symbol on his scalp. Any university student caught doing that could have been hauled up to face discipline. Or perhaps not if he sports a BN icon.
Until the recent amendments to the Act, such a student could even have been dragged to court and faced the possibility of a jail sentence.
Last May, four Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) students were charged by their university under the UUCA for showing sympathy or support for Pakatan Rakyat when they were found in possession of the coalition’s campaign materials during the Hulu Selangor by-election. It was, to say the least, pitiable.
Malaysian universities are what they are today because the UUCA not only prohibits students from expressing political opinion publicly and being members of political parties; it also bars them from joining any society outside of their university without the written consent of their Vice-Chancellor. This is too extensive a ban; and it is this that gives the Act a bad name.
Without allowing our students to participate freely in the larger community, how can we expect them to widen their horizons? How can they be expected to be thinking beings with an informed world-view? How then can we have world-class universities?
The Malaysian university students of the 60s and early 70s were so different. Progressive and aware of their social responsibilities, they engaged in the issues of the day. They rallied for the poor of Teluk Gong, Tasik Utara and Baling, and marched for other causes. They demonstrated against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets and the oppression of Muslims in Pattani, and spoke up for plight of the Palestinians. It was part of their own education.
But the student movement came to an end when amendments to the UUCA were bulldozed through Parliament in 1975. Mahathir Mohamad was then the Minister of Education. Students responded by holding mass demonstrations in 1976 at the MARA Institute of Technology to protest against the amendments. Guess who then threatened to revoke their scholarships and thereby managed to break them up?
After that, universities were reduced to “glorified high schools”. More than shutting up the students, the UUCA curbed their intellectual freedom and sense of curiosity. What took root was a culture of obeisance and coconut-shell mediocrity and the prioritizing of passing exams above all else. The academic staff were negatively affected as well. Lecturers who tried to promote independent thinking and free speech among their students found themselves to be a dwindling minority.
The most insidious outcome of all this was the cultivation of a breed of academics who to find favor with the Establishment perpetuated the closing of the Malaysian student mind once they got into influential positions. It epitomizes the tragedy of Malaysian academia.
It could only have happened under a government that ruled with a strong mandate and, of course, a government that preferred to keep university students mute and under its thumb.
But the times, they are a-changin’, and the Government must now realize that it had better start swimmin’ or it’ll sink like a stone. The recent victories of the Pro-Mahasiswa group, said to be anti-Establishment, in a number of campus elections should cause the political rulers some concern.
Even more worrisome for them would be the indications that these students will no longer take unfair treatment without fighting back. The protests of the Pro-Mahasiswa group in Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) that railed against alleged election meddling by university authorities showed a new spirit almost akin to that of the 60s and 70s firebrands.
What happened at UM and UPM generally reflects badly on the university authorities. Disqualifying Pro-Mahasiswa candidates who had won in the elections raised a fishy smell. To the students’ credit, they demanded an explanation from their respective vice-chancellors and refused to budge unless they got one. When security guards were called, things got a tad tense, even violent. Although the mainstream media has been trying to blame the students for getting out of hand, the fact remains that they had right on their side. It was just too bad that the tough security guards were on the other side.
Fortunately, Deputy Higher Education Minister Saifuddin Abdullah played a role in defusing the tension at UPM by expressing regret over the annulment of the victories of the 11 candidates, 10 of whom were with Pro-Mahasiswa. When the victors were eventually reinstated, UPM declared that the candidates were not “disqualified” in the first place. The word used in the letters issued to the affected candidates was “pembatalan”, which it said should mean “cancellation”.
Pray tell, what’s the difference? If a candidacy is “cancelled”, doesn’t that amount to disqualification? Are we hearing ivory-tower doublespeak?
Saifuddin seems to have read the situation well. He seems to understand the significance of student activism. The Arab uprisings would have provided a lesson, but more pressing is the prospect of the general election coming up at any time now. Suppression of student activism would be a huge mistake. Many of them would be going to the polling booths for the first time.
Already, some have even offered themselves as election candidates. At the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement forum last December, it was startling but refreshing to see student leader Shazni Munir bin Mohd Ithnin openly and confidently declare that “the time for fear is over” and that his fellow students were offering themselves as candidates to pro-rakyat political parties to stand in the next general election.
This was open defiance of the UUCA, an act of courage. As more and more students show courage in the face of repression, many may be moved to join them. They have indeed come a long way since August 2008 when 100 of them staged a protest against the then proposed amendments to the UUCA at the entrance to Parliament, to the December 2010 protest in Putrajaya against petrol, diesel and sugar price hikes for which three students were arrested, to the UM and UPM face-offs with the university authorities.
University students have found their voice again, as Ivy Kwek, a graduate from a Malaysian university, observed in an online site recently. They know they can make a difference and will strive to do so.
“When I was a student,” she wrote, “among the first things first-year students were told in orientation week was that we should focus on our studies and not get embroiled in campus politics and illegal organisations… I really believed what they said and thought that is what university is all about…
“Later, I found out that under the Universities and University Colleges Act … I cannot participate in a gathering of more than three people, as it is deemed illegal. I also found out that I, as a 21-year-old, can vote and even contest in national politics, but under the Act, am not allowed to be a member of any political party…
“In retrospect, I feel that I’ve been treated like a fool.”
Oh, well. The times, they are a-changin’… and university students are fools no more. Oppressors, beware!