The war to restore student autonomy in UM

By Chow Yu Hui
Oct 29, 2014

ADUN SPEAKS The night before PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim’s final appeal against his sodomy charge, the nation was moved by the brave act of the Universiti Malaysia Students Union (PMUM) who invited Anwar to return to his alma mater to give his final speech.

The venue for his speech was UM’s most historical structure, the Dewan Tunku Canselor (DTC). It is a symbolic structure which witnesses the start and end of a UM student’s academic life.

The student movement which once threatened political power of Umno and BN was first gagged by the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) in 1971.

After various amendments to the Act, Umno/BN succeeded in controlling all universities through oppressing the student leaders, academic staffs and the core value of a university, which is the academic freedom.

And after all these years, we were left asking: ‘Will the UM administration allow a programe involving the Opposition Leader?’

The answer to this question requires one to look at the bigger picture, but many do not have enough clarity to do so.

Think! Why do we need the permission from the university management to carry out student activity?

Does this mean that Anwar can’t enter the university without the approval from the university?

The answer will be yes if and only if UM really belongs to the administration.

Student union proclaim autonomy

As expected, the university declared the programmed ‘Anwar Ibrahm: 40 Years From UM to Jail’ is illegal and even issued a showcause letter to PMUM president, Fahmi Zainol.

If Fahmi refuses to comply, he will be fined RM200 and suspended for two semesters.

But in the face of such action, it is the daring and strategic tactic by PMUM, under Fahmi’s lead, which warrants attention.

Knowing that the management of the university will not approve or consider giving access to Anwar, PMUM did not even try to pressure or beg the management.

Instead, they approved it themselves.

Yes, PMUM approved the programme and Anwar’s access to the university.

This strategic move made by our future leaders was a proclamation of student autonomy, a surprise attack which caught the managed and government off guard.

In its statement, PMUM emphasised that the programe is legal, reasonable, and plausible.

They also said that the university does not only belong to the management, but to the students, academic staff and alumni.

As a legitimately elected student body that represents the students of UM, PMUM inarguably has a say in the university, but other student leaders argue that everyday students must also have autonomy as after all, they are the ones paying the fees.

In comparison, they argue, the management is made up of paid staff.

All these point to one question – Why don’t students have the right to decide on the university policies, even though they make up the majority in a university?

Reviving the student union

The present standoff between the student union and UM management is a build up of 40 years of rights stolen from the students.

According to UUCA, the UM student union is referred to as Majlis Perwakilan Pelajar (Student Representative Council, or MPP).

The name Persatuan Mahasiswa Universiti Malaya (PMUM) in Bahasa Malaysia or University of Malaya Students Union (UMSU) in English was banned after the implementation of UUCA.

Furthermore, a unit known as the Student Affairs Division or Hal Ehwal Pelajar (HEP) was set up by the government with the objective of taking over all of PMUM’s functions and to monitor all students in the university.

Before the UUCA, PMUM was the government that managed the university.

They have their own student union building, they tendered the canteen services, managed the bus system and managed their own election without the interference from the management of the university.

PMUM once invited the opposition leaders, too, like Lim Kit Siang and Dr Tan Chee Khoon to discuss on national issue.

It was a progressive era of UM which now serves as inspiration to the present PMUM which is mostly made up of reps from the Pro-Mahasiswa faction.

Its first step in reviving the student union was to rename it from MPPUM to PMUM.

Although the PMUM today does not in actuality have the same resources and authority its pre-UUCA predecessor, it has fully utilised the mandate given by the students to object policy which is against student interest.

And for the first time in 40 years, PMUM linked arms with the UM Academic Staff Union to organie a march in solidarity with charged UM law lecturer Azmi Sharom, to restore academic freedom.

Expressing his excitement in a speech during the march, economic professor Terence Gomez who was also a UM student said this was a moment long overdue.

Such cooperation is definitely a threat to the management, and it would not be overboard to expect the management to attempt to oust the Pro-Mahasiswa faction from power in the next campus polls.

The next level

After all is said and done, it really does not matter whether or not Anwar was able to enter his alma mater on Oct 27.

The point of the whole thing is that PMUM had used this opportunity to reclaim autonomy and to challenge the authorities’ actions in making decisions against the students’ will.

PMUM’s bold move questions the raison d’etre of all student representative councils (MPPs) in public universities in Malaysia and the objective of campus elections.

It is time for all MPPs to break the perception student unions are child’s play and to bring the movement to the next level.

In any nation or region that is heading toward greater democratisation, the student movement is an indispensable power.

The best example is the umbrella revolution led by the students in Hong Kong.

Malaysia’s student movement has progressed from striving for the rights of students to participate in politics in the Reformasi era to the reclamation of student autonomy in the post-13th general election period.

In order to make Malaysia’s student movement stronger and more influential, an important pre-requisite is to restore autonomy.

“If the presidential office is a symbol of authoritativeness, the student union house would be the symbol of resistance.”

The above quote taken from political commentator and headmaster of Confucian Private School, Phoon Weng Keong perfectly describes the importance of a student union.

I hope this article is able to give encouragement to all students.

CHOW YU HUI is DAP’s assemblyperson for Bilut and a UM alumnus. The article was edited for language and clarity.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Thursday, 30 October 2014 - 9:21 am

    YES, RESTORE not only student autonomy in UM
    Also restore judge autonomy in M’sian courts

    Fr comments made by various individuals, including law students, on d Internet, rakyat got d feeling dat d standard of our courts is generally LOW/POOR
    Rakyat know dat even though we boast of m@ssive courts (aesthetically known as Palace of dis n dat), we feel veri ashamed, sad, embarr@ssed, & disappointed dat our judiciary system leaves a lot to be desired (Remember d infamous late Aug Paul?)
    Only judges with clear conscience, integrity, principles, n guts/backbone DARE 2 give fair, correct n independent judgments
    N they r few n far between ………. rare species indeed

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Thursday, 30 October 2014 - 9:33 am

    To bring changes, must hv discipline, b fair 2 all, n b objective

    Yesterday, supporters of AI tried 2 storm d barricade around d court complex n eggs were thrown at d mata2 guarding d Federal Court
    Y such actions 1 huh?

You must be logged in to post a comment.