Where Even Liberal Politics Is Denied: The Case of Students in Malaysia

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The recent case of the ‘UKM Four’ has triggered a new wave of public debate in Malaysia regarding the infamous Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA, or AUKU in Malaysian). This piece of legislation – passed at the height of student (semi-)radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s – among other things, prohibits university students from engaging in non-campus politics. To be exact, sections 15(1) and (5), read together, make it an offence for a student to be a member of or “express or do anything which may reasonably be construed as expressing support for or sympathy with or opposition to… any political party, whether in or outside Malaysia; any unlawful organization, body or group of persons, whether in or outside Malaysia; or any organization, body or group of persons which the Minister, after consultation with the Board, has specified in writing to the Vice-Chancellor to be unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University.” Until 2009, the punishment for such an offence was “a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both such fine and imprisonment”. However, in the wave of ‘reforms’ promulgated by the present Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, the power to mete out punishment was handed over from the judicial arm of the government to the university administration.

The story of the UKM Four is a rather simple one. In April 2010, Muhammad Hilman bin Idham, Muhammad Ismail bin Aminuddin, Azlin Shafina Mohamad Adzha and Woon King Chai, four political science majors of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), decided to take up an offer to observe a by-election in the parliamentary constituency of Hulu Selangor. While being shown around the area by Johnny, a friend of one of the four who was a member of one of the participating political parties, they were stopped by policemen who searched the van two of them were in and found fliers expressing support for that particular (opposition) party. These fliers were in packages and belonged to Johnny, but because they were in the van rather than the car that Johnny was driving, it was concluded that they were the property of the students. After a representative from their university arrived and identified them as UKM students, they were promptly arrested and taken to the nearby police station. A month later they were served charge sheets by the university authorities and disciplinary proceedings, still ongoing at the present time, commenced.It is a sign of the political immaturity of Malaysia, even by liberal standards, that mere symbolic involvement in a manifestation of parliamentary politics is an offence that may lead to one’s expulsion from university. The UKM Four were not doing anything intrinsically radical, but were merely attempting to satisfy their political and, it must be stressed here, academic curiosity by witnessing first-hand part of the workings of the capitalo-parliamentary system. And even for this little act of inquisitiveness they have been charged in the first highly publicised case in recent years involving the academic freedom of students in Malaysia.Foucault in The History of Sexuality Vol 1 wrote in relation to confession and censorship, “[O]ne has to have an inverted image of power in order to believe that all these voices which have spoken so long in our civilization… are speaking to us of freedom.” Likewise with regards to the UUCA, Dr Mahathir Mohammad, then the Education Minister before his rise to become the strongman of Malaysia for 22 years, said while tabling the 1975 bill to amend the Act which intensified its draconian provisions:

Students are urged [by radicals among them] to unite to ostensibly put right a society deemed unjust – this society which gives them opportunities even though they are in reality undeserving. … It is clear that such activities distract university students and impede their focus on their studies. And the saddest thing is that the students most involved are bumiputera [indigenous] students – those whom are socially backward and for whom education is the only hope they have to better themselves. … It is clear that this is an act of sabotage, even an act of treason. These student leaders are, perhaps, childish and ignorant that their actions are undeniably destructive of the nation and its people as well as detrimental to the equality between the ethnic groups of our country.

There are many in the Malaysian student body who, in response to such arguments, become either apathetic or afraid. In essence they consent, by virtue of their omission to take a stance against the UUCA, to the (non-)logic of the hypothetical freedom that is granted to students to ‘focus on their studies’ rather than partake in any political engagement. Even more alarming are the cases in which students have come up with fully-formed arguments that support the UUCA’s narrow logic, as in the case of the blogger who opined that involvement in politics at an early age “need[s] to be avoided and the protection of young minds is what UUCA [sic] might be doing.”

As part of the points-based immigration system in the UK which has been phased in gradually beginning in 2008, universities were instructed by the government to keep tabs on international students by, for example, recording attendance at classes and passing on such information to the Home Office and UK Border Agency. A group opposing this policy came into being, organising around the name Students Not Suspects. Monitoring students, on the other hand, is the norm in Malaysia, and the history of such attitudes was already in place during the passage of the 1971 bill. During the debate on the bill Tajudin bin Ali, the MP for North Larut, stated that: “[W]e should be able to… monitor the activities of our university students” because this is akin to “readying an umbrella before the rain comes”.

But after all, during the 1975 bill’s debate, a premonition of the aggressive and merciless stance Dr Mahathir would take as Prime Minister when he came to power six years later – and not just towards civil liberties, but indeed any form of true freedom – was keenly visible in his speech outlining the bill. It set the tone, perhaps, for his 22-year regime, with the ruling ideology, unofficial but easily discerned, of Nationalistic Communitarianism in One Country based on Asian Values:

Mr Speaker, Sir, this law that we have before us is for our own country, for Malaysia. We are not interested in what other countries do and certainly we are not interested in what other countries think we should do. Our only consideration and our only criterion is whether this law is good for our country, for its development and for its future prosperity. We have no desire to be patted on the back by anyone by doing what others consider is right.

It is this brazen, almost go-it-alone attitude that has at times set Malaysia apart from its other Southeast Asian neighbours, albeit arguably more often in negative rather than positive ways.

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  2 comments for “Where Even Liberal Politics Is Denied: The Case of Students in Malaysia

  1. Abd Hamid Hj Abd Manan
    1 October 2012 at 3:54 am

    The writer don’t know what actually he’s talking about. Have kids that analyze and talk. Don’t spoil this country.

    • Atikah
      27 December 2015 at 2:42 pm

      Then are young people supposed to just sit back, listen and obey all the “intelligency” shown by the elder w/o thinking? People who obey w/o thinking and w/o analysing are those who are actually going to destroy this country. young people are the generation who will be leading this country and ridiculously the elder prohibit us from involving in politic and have a say. What an empty-minded rule!! People are not living in the jungle anymore, we can read, write, understand and ANALYSE what is wrong and write. Even in university we learn critical thinking, to analyse everything around us and yet we’re still trapped under such rule.

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