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Students may soon mix with politics

Amendment to law may give more political freedom to universities and academics

  • Joachim Francis Xavier, Kuala Lumpur
  • Malaysia
  • January 20, 2012
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Students and faculty members at Malaysian universities are again asserting themselves and their right to fully participate in the political life of the nation.

The University and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) severely curtailed this right in an apparent attempt to prevent universities from becoming political hotbeds. But a wave of change is about to sweep through campuses as more enlightened members of the government begin to see that the UUCA has run its course.

The stated aim of the act is to “provide for the establishment, maintenance and administration of universities and university colleges.” But Section 15 of the act prohibits students and university organizations from associating or sympathizing with, or supporting or opposing any political party.

Why was this law put in place?

Counter-cultural radicalism in the 60s and 70s around the world had spread to campuses in Malaysia. It spawned anti-establishment leftist student movements such as Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement) and University of Malaya’s Students Union and Socialist Club, all of which tried to fill the vacuum left by the decimation of opposition political parties after the infamous May 13, 1969 communal riots.

These groups were led by idealistic and charismatic leaders, some of whom remain in active politics today. They fought for democratic reforms and a more equal society, as well as for farmers’ and squatters’ rights. These students also organized many large public rallies that saw dramatic confrontations with police using batons and tear gas.

The government became very uneasy and perceived them to be a “threat to national security.” In 1971, the UUCA was enacted. But it remained largely benign. Two events in 1974 changed that.

In September 1974, students staged a massive protest over broken election promises by the government to save squatter homes. In December 1974, students stood alongside poor rubber tappers protesting at low rubber prices, soaring prices of essential goods, and corruption. Both these incidents saw ugly clashes with the authorities and the arrest of many student leaders and faculty members sympathetic to their cause.

The government was bent on destroying these movements once and for all. In 1975, led by the then education minister Mahathir Mohamad (who later became the nation’s longest serving prime minister), it made sweeping amendments to the UUCA, providing for blanket prohibitions on any political and trade union involvement. Thus the UUCA was effectively turned into a legal weapon to annihilate student movements. In campuses, phrases such as “political reform,” “social justice” and “democratic freedoms” were vulgar terms.

The law was applied unrelentingly and continues to be applied today. Here are some examples in recent times:

In December 2004, Soh Sok Hua, a student from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang was charged with breaching the law because of a photograph that appeared in a local newspaper showing her wearing a T-shirt bearing an opposition party logo. She was found guilty of campaigning for an opposition candidate, fined 200 ringgit and issued with a stern warning.

Catholic student organizations such as the Campus Undergraduate Society from that university and the Campus Ministry of Penang Diocese joined other human rights groups in demonstrating in front of the university.

In 2008, Azlan Zainal and Mior Isfandy Mior Azizan were censured by the same university for issuing statements on behalf of the Parti Mahasiswa Negara (National Students’ Party) during the general election. Pending a disciplinary hearing, Mior Isfandy’s student loan was suspended and his full transcript withheld.

In December 2011, Adam Adli, a undergraduate student from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (Sultan Idris Education University) was suspended for 18 months after lowering a flag which had a picture of Prime Minister Najib Razak imprinted on it during a demonstration against the UUCA in Kuala Lumpur. The university deemed the act to have “damaged the good name” of the university and “endangered morals and public order.”

But the draconian nature of the amended UUCA has seen a backlash.

Groups such as SUARAM (Voice of the Malaysian People), Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and the Bar Council have long championed the students’ cause, and certain recent developments are providing signs that the UUCA could be meeting its demise soon.

The ever-louder voices of dissatisfaction prompted the government in 2009 to make several amendments to the UUCA which allowed students to join NGOs and removed criminal penalties and onerous presumptions that made proving infractions that much easier for university authorities. However, the ban on joining political parties and being involved in politics remained firmly in place.

But in October 2011, the Court of Appeal surprisingly declared that Section 15 of the UUCA was excessive and breached Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. The court case came about when four political science undergraduates from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia were charged the year before for campaigning in a by-election. The court decision sent shockwaves through academia and the government.

Higher Education Deputy Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has stated that it is high time tertiary students be treated like adults. He has also said that if students are prevented from venting their grievances, the government would be unwittingly producing activists.

Last November, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that Section 15 of the UUCA would be amended to enable students to join political parties, but not go as far as allowing politics onto the campus. Subsequently, the Higher Education Ministry set up a committee to receive input from all stakeholders. The committee is expected to submit the proposed amendments to the Ministry of Higher Education next month.

There is debate over whether the UUCA would be amended or repealed altogether. If Saifuddin’s and Najib’s statements are anything to go by, it is more likely that it will be amended.

There is a prevailing sense of skepticism among students groups and opposition political parties that the current change of mood might only be for show as the country’s next general election is expected this year. It would be wise for students not to comment until the Malaysian king’s signature formally amends the UUCA amendment that took away the voice of idealism so necessary in a country hungry for real change.

Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has served the Catholic Diocese of Penang for over 10 years. Now doing post-graduate studies in Kuala Lumpur, he is also serving as chairman of the Malaysian bishops’ Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants.
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