― Zairee Othman
The Malay Mail Online
April 19, 2014
APRIL 19 ― I feel compelled to share my stories in light of the recent withdrawal of speaking invitation from MASCA to Tony Pua, a Member of Parliament from DAP. Although this came not as a total surprise, I have been constantly disappointed with the endless attempts by government officials who try to control Malaysian student-movements, overseas or locally.
I was asked by a good friend of mine to give my take on this issue in my capacity as a project manager of a previous conference in Melbourne in 2010, which also involved politicians.
In 2010, we held our first ever public debate and conference in Australia called Malaysian Aspiration Program (MAP). The conference was fully organised by students and we had the privilege to host 4 speakers as our guest panellists ― i.e. a Malaysian university professor, the then President of Australia-Malaysia Business Council (AMBC), President of IDEAS (Tunku Zain al-‘Abidin), and YB Tony Pua.
I could remember vividly that we too had trouble of getting the approval from the Education Malaysia (EM, or Malaysian Students’ Department (MSD), as it was known then) to hold the conference. We had a roundtable discussion between the organisers and the MSD as a sign of goodwill to get them onboard. The discussion was very calm and fruitful as we managed to turn the table around and get them to agree on our line of speakers. As a result, they were even willing to become a major sponsor for the event under one of their so-called student development programmes. We agreed to hold the discussion with them regardless of many of the organizing committee members are JPA and MARA scholars ― who would risk being questioned by the scholarship officials on their participation.
We had a rehearsal the night before the event kicked off. Our MSD representatives were there to observe our preparation. We planned to have a poll on “Do you think Malaysia has a brighter future?” before the students and guests go inside the conference hall and would project the outcome of the poll just before the event concluded. When the officials saw it, they subtly told me to “manipulate” the outcome should it go negatively.
It really was a huge integrity test for the team and me. As much as I would like to please them, I also have a responsibility to everyone attending the event to tell the truth ― as much as my responsibility as a Muslim to be honest by telling the truth. As such, I did not let it happen.
The event was a great success and we managed to create a platform for intellectual discourse. The students in attendance spoke their mind and gave positive inputs towards building a better future for Malaysia. We hoped that the forum could be the “spark” that would encourage more participation in intellectual discourse.
Values that may have changed
Given my experience with MSD and the government officials in Australia at large, I would understand the predicament that the MASA organisers are facing right now. In fact, I am sure our student council in the UK back in their early days faced the same difficult situation in dealing with MSD. I also heard stories of how some of them almost got sent back to Malaysia due to their being too outspoken in the late 90s. Well, mark my word; these outspoken, blunt and vocal lads are currently the Who’s Who in the Malaysian corporate and political landscape. Go figure.
What I am trying to say is, whatever decision that MASCA had made, it must have been a reflection of their values. They could have risked losing a sponsor had they agreed to bring along Tony Pua. In fact, the repercussion of losing a sponsorship is so great that they would give up on the very values of having a public debate in the first place i.e. allowing for different perspectives on things. Or they could have let Tony Pua speak, but risked losing a big chunk of their sponsorship money. Either way, a point of compromise must have been made before coming to a decision and to a certain extent, being a laughing stock of those who care.
Whatever the outcome is, I am glad that the organisers had the courage to make the call despite being seen as clearly succumbing to pressures by EM and to bitterly own up to their decision. A word of comfort, you will feel a sense of deja-vu when you enter the working world in the near future and by then, you would know what you need to do. Whatever it may be, do not wash your hands of the responsibility as a student council and lose your integrity by being a puppet to people who are not interested in student development and critical thinking ― because that would be unbecoming of a student leader.
To the officers at EM, I implore you to look at things from a positive side. There is absolutely no harm in inviting an opposition leader for a forum so long as there is another person from the other side of the political aisle who can tip the balance.
*The writer is a former Deputy Chairman of the Victorian Chapter of the Malaysian Students’ Council of Australia (MASCA) and a co-founder of MAP