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.
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.