Political freedom and char kuey teow on a chilly London night

by Dyana Sofya
Malay Mail Online
October 7, 2015

OCTOBER 7 — The air was chilly but festive. Crowds of Londoners were streaming in, most of them in their work attire as it was a weekday evening.

Amid the hustle and bustle, a few people clad in Malaysian traditional costumes were giving out red hibiscus clips. I took one of myself and pinned it on my hair.

Our national flower as an adornment — what a neat way to commemorate our country on this evening celebrating Malaysia Night in London.

Spread out around Trafalgar Square were stalls selling a variety of Malaysian delicacies such as satay, roti canai, apam balik and much more. For many Malaysians living in London, it was a real treat, even if it was a bit of a luxury at GBP5 per meal (but then again, where else can you get roadside nasi lemak in London?).

As I sat on the steps of Trafalgar Square while waiting for the festivities to begin, a young Malaysian student beside me opened his container of hot, steaming char kuey teow from one of the stalls. I couldn’t help commenting how great it smelled and looked, and tried to recall when was the last time I had a plate of flat rice noodles cooked with seafood, chives, chilli paste and soy sauce. If there’s one thing Malaysians miss almost immediately after leaving home, it is our food!

And so the char kuey teow became an ice-beaker and I began to chat with the student and some of his friends. They all wanted to know about what was happening back home, from donations to 1MDB. The topic of Bersih 4.0 naturally came up, and one student shared with me her interest to participate in the rally, but did not because she and other JPA scholars had received a “love letter” warning them not to attend or risk their scholarships.

This is, of course, not the first time that such threats have been made. In 2011, JPA scholars in Australia received the same “friendly reminder” that the terms and conditions in their scholarship agreements stipulated that they were not allowed to participate in demonstrations or protests deemed by political or detrimental to Malaysia’s image.

Over chicken satay, our conversation steered towards the UKM4 incident and the amendment to Section 15(5) of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU). In 2012, the Federal Court dismissed the appeal brought by the Government, the Higher Education Minister and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) against the landmark decision that deemed Section 15(5) of AUKU, which prohibited students from expressing sympathy or support to any political party whether in or outside Malaysia, as unconstitutional.

In the case of UKM4, the four students in question, Muhammad Hilman Idham, Woon King Chai, Azlin Shafina Mohamad Adza and Muhammad Ismail Aminuddin (who coincidentally was my neighbour growing up) were found to have breached Section 15(5)(a) of the Act for allegedly being present during the campaign period of the Hulu Selangor parliamentary by-election on 21 April 2010.

They were issued notices by the university to appear before a disciplinary tribunal to answer the charges. The students initiated judicial review, and although they lost in the High Court, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision in a 2-1 majority decision which also ruled that Section 15(5)(a) of the Act was unreasonable and violated the principle of freedom of speech that is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.

Hence, the question now arises whether the prohibition on JPA scholars from participating in political demonstrations is constitutional.

According to Clause 5.5 of the Federal Scholarship Agreement, students are not allowed to participate in any seditious activity (as defined by the government) or any protest or demonstration.

While the provision of freedom of speech under Article 5 of the Federal Constitution is not absolute, it must be reasonable. Therefore, the question is whether it is reasonable for our scholars to lose their scholarships simply for participating in peaceful rallies?

Meanwhile, Clause 5.6 of the same agreement bans students and student groups from expressing sympathy or support for any political party. This clearly carries the same spirit with the now repealed Section 15(5)(a) of AUKU.

By right, this clause should no longer be in place, as the law itself was deemed unconstitutional. At the same time, this also raises the question about selective application of the law, because we never hear of students who join Kelab UMno in foreign countries being hauled up and threatened with the removal of their scholarships.

It is simply confounding that our government continues to perpetuate rules that deny the fundamental liberties of our students. What makes it worse is the apparent double standards applied.

In November 2011, Datuk Seri Najib Razak told Parliament that the amendment to Section 15 of AUKU was meant to allow political freedom for university students because “the government believes in the maturity and intelligence of our university students.” He further commented that “this decision is a result of the government’s concern and understanding of the people’s aspirations, and how we have listened to their wishes. This is not merely cheap rhetoric or tales from merchants of dreams… This is the result of political will and moral bravery.”

So the prime minister believes that Malaysian students have maturity and intelligence in expressing political sympathy, yet at the same time the same faith is not extended to our federal scholars overseas. I believe that our scholars should be given political freedom. What about you, Mr Prime Minister?

  1. #1 by tmc on Thursday, 8 October 2015 - 12:32 am

    Agree absolutely. Current laws are skewed, our students are being played out. If their views are different to the govt’s, shouldn’t we allow them the flexibility for opinions to blossom and mature.

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