Decades of muzzling academic freedom in Malaysia

It stifles participation in politics and has outsourced political discourse to celebrity Muslim preachers

Vanitha Nadaraj

Updated: April 29, 2024 11:59 AM GMT

Students from the University of Malaya hold up placards during a rally against the sedition law at their main campus in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 10, 2014, after a court sentenced a student activist to 10 months in jail for sedition, with the government increasingly using the tough colonial-era legislation to stifle dissent. (Photo: AFP)

A visiting academic from the United States recently posted on X that Malaysia, through its actions and statements, was pushing for a second Holocaust against the Jewish people.

Portland State University's Bruce Gilley said on April 24 that this was a quote from a talk he gave earlier as a guest speaker at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

The post did not go down well with the government, which ordered the university to cancel his remaining talks. The university apologized for not doing due diligence, and the American apologized for his post and deleted it.

What was shocking, though not surprising, was the statement by the university's student union, which has a robust Muslim-Malay representation. They wanted to know why the university's faculty invited Gilley and opined that only speakers who shared the government's stand should be allowed to speak to students.

How different these students were from those in the late sixties and early seventies when the University of Malaya was the hub of student activism. It was when polemics and intellectual discourse had value and were the norm.

It was the only university at the time, and it was set up by the government. Private universities came much later.

The then university students took on issues such as socio-economic disparity, and the student bodies held conferences that pushed boundaries, according to a report by Hassan Abdul Karim, a parliamentarian from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party.

They demanded the government release political prisoners, reform land ownership policies, and allow greater public participation in governance.

This made the student movement a powerful force in the political scene, and the University of Malaya remained the center of activism despite the emergence of other universities.

The students there even formed the Socialist Club, which only means there must have been lively debates on political economy, wealth distribution, rights, civil liberties, and the direction the country should take.

They held rallies on campus and then started organizing rallies in Kuala Lumpur and other towns, raising issues of democracy and social justice.

After the bloody race riots in 1969, they held a series of demonstrations demanding then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to step down. They felt he was pandering too much to the Chinese community and neglecting the Muslim-Malays.

One of the student leaders then was Anwar Ibrahim. He then pursued an undergraduate degree in Malay Studies at the University of Malaya and headed the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students.

The government got worried, and even when police action did not work, the restrictive Universities and Universities Colleges Act (UUCA) was enacted in 1971.

The UUCA withdrew students' rights to expression, peaceful assembly, and association, resulting in a wide range of prohibitions on students' activities in public and private institutions of higher learning.

It restricted academics and allowed the government to control key appointments in public universities. The government is not planning to let go of control over the operations and management of public universities, going by its response to the Gilley issue.

The Higher Education Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir was reported to have said: Although institutions of higher education are given autonomy to decide on intellectual programs, it does not mean they have complete freedom to ignore the sensitivities of Malaysia's majority [Muslim-Malays].

This reflects the way Malaysia is governed, with freedom given and taken away at the government's discretion. The reasons for its actions can be explained away by citing racial and religious sensitivities.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad once said Malaysia practiced guided democracy, and it could never be a full democracy because that would only work in the West and not in multi-religious and multi-ethnic Malaysia.

Critics say guided democracy, introduced by President Sukarno to bring political stability to Indonesia in the 1960s, is authoritarian in disguise, with elections just a façade.

This means the government will do all the thinking, leaving little or no room for polemics, public discourse, and critical thinking – the tools needed to build a strong democracy and a robust society.

The absence of all these over the last 50 years in Malaysian universities and other institutions like the media has created a citizenry that does not know where the government's role ends and where personal freedom and responsibility begin, among others.

A study by the think tank Ilham Centre among 18-20-year-olds who were eligible to vote found that almost 90 percent were unaware of current political developments. This is where celebrity Muslim preachers come in. These articulate, entertaining, and tech-savvy influencers have the minds and hearts of young Muslim Malaysians.

These preachers post lectures with a mix of religion and politics, and where complex matters on governance and politics are broken into bite-size, making them easy to understand.

The results of a 2023 study by Pew Research Centre said that half of the Muslim-Malay respondents wanted these preachers to educate them on political matters and to be their political leaders.

There are reports on how preachers have used their influence to direct support to certain political parties. At the same time, non-Muslims, on the other hand, tend to rely on the sentiments of their communities and their community leaders.

Political decision-making has been outsourced, and political participation has been stifled due to decades of muzzling academia. Reversing this situation will take an immense amount of political will.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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