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When different ideas are deemed dangerous in Malaysia

Meet student leader Fahmi Zainol - Photograph: Malaysian Insider

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The restrictions on the students’ movement at Universiti Malaya is symptomatic of the lack of freedom of expression in our larger society, writes Mustafa K Anuar.

Meet student leader Fahmi Zainol - Photograph: Malaysian Insider
Meet student leader Fahmi Zainol – Photograph: Malaysian Insider

Malaysia as a nation has the knack for hitting the world headlines but for the wrong reasons.

Like their political leaders, certain academics are also inclined to do and say what many politicians are good at: to react and also express arguments that would have been laughable if only they were not seriously intellectually flawed.

Late last month, a commotion broke out in Universiti Malaya (UM) when news emerged that the university’s famous alumnus, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, had been invited by UM’s Student Representatives’ Council to give a speech on campus on the eve of his Sodomy II trial. The council‘s leader, Fahmi Zainol, was threatened with disciplinary action if he and his council went ahead with the planned invitation, which they eventually did.

Subsequently, Fahmi, along with eight of his colleagues, was slapped with nine charges by the university’s disciplinary committee under the Universities and University Colleges Act. What is it about Anwar Ibrahim that UM seems afraid of?

What is appalling is the view expressed by no less than the university’s deputy vice chancellor for student affairs, Prof Dr Rohana Yusof, who claimed that such an invitation was tantamount to tarnishing the university’s reputation! How could a speech by a legitimate opposition leader spoil the image of UM?

On the evening of the event, the lights went off on campus just as Anwar was about to speak. And before that, anecdotal accounts revealed that university staff had been told to go home early and classes after 4.00pm were to be cancelled because of some power supply issue.

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If these accounts are true, it says a lot about the kind of people who run the country’s oldest university.

The university management‘s actions run counter to the notion of university education taking place in an environment where ideas should be free to float around for students to grasp, absorb or reject in the long process of learning.

The management should have more faith in their students, many of whom are mature enough to handle ideas and dissenting views. Indeed, thought control is anathema to academic freedom.

We only hope that Rohana and her ilk will eventually come to the right conclusion as to who really smeared the standing of their university.

At the time of writing, students from UM have invited 73-year-old Wahida Mat Salleh, whose home of 40 years in Kampung Chubadak Tambahan in Sentul was bulldozed by a developer to make way for a commercial complex, to speak on campus. We fervently hope that no untoward incident will occur, like, I don’t know, a water supply disruption on campus perhaps.

One would have thought that this appalling incident in UM would serve as a good lesson for other local universities, which already have to come to terms with their poor world ranking. But no, a student gathering at UKM that featured UM’s Fahmi Zainol was deemed illegal by the university authorities, and subsequently cut short. It was reported that the speakers were given a miserly two minutes each to speak to a crowd of some 300 people. In certain universities, signboards warning ‘trespassers’ of prosecution have already emerged in the wake of these incidents.

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These unfortunate incidents suggest an erosion of academic freedom in our local universities in recent times, which certainly is not the way to promote all-round education in an intellectually vibrant and stimulating environment. You don’t get a good academic institution out of yes-men and yes-women. That belongs to the kingdom of sheep, not academia. Sadly, for an institution like a university, such a suffocating environment is tantamount to anti-intellectualism.

This academic malaise is also symptomatic of the lack of freedom of expression in our larger society, especially over the last few years. It is the kind of society whose leaders – political, academic and religious – are averse to differences of opinion and ‘overly-sensitive’ to a diversity of ideas.

Very often, certain laws if not fatwa, are employed to ban ideas that are frowned upon by the groups or individuals concerned. In this situation, it would be most appreciated if groups from both sides of the ideological and political divide could initiate dialogues to promote communication, mutual understanding and respect for differing views.

All this is indicative of an erosion of democracy in Malaysia. While freedom of expression is indeed one of the cornerstones of a democracy, it certainly doesn’t promote hate speech nor verbal incitement to violence. To be sure, freedom of speech doesn’t mean the right to physically deprive others of their right to speak in a civilised manner.

Mustafa K Anuar,
Co-editor, Aliran e-Newsletter,
5 November 2014

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