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How Malaysia’s top university blundered by swatting a protester

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A little dose of humility in addressing students as equals would not go amiss, writes Nah Yan Sheng.

Immediately after receiving his graduation scroll during the convocation ceremony at the University of Malaysia, Wong Yan Ke staged a solo protest against the vice-chancellor for his speech at the Malay Dignity Congress.

He shouted, “Ini Tanah Malaysia!” while holding a placard that read: “Tolak Rasis. Undur VC” (Reject Racists. Resign, VC).

In response, the university lodged a police report and condemned Wong’s act for not respecting the ceremony and disrupting protocol and the smooth running of the event. The act, the university added, “tarnished the good name” of the university, the graduates and the university staff.

The university said it “always supports the principle of freedom of expression. Even so, as an institute of higher learning that is entrusted to educate the future generation, we also believe that any action based on such principles must be carried out at the right time and place.” 

The university could have engaged with any dissident group in open dialogue on camera. It could have written a conciliatory statement. Instead, it chose to issue a typical statement, talking down to the graduate as if his action was just a rebellious juvenile act.

Resorting to overused phrases such as “tarnished the good name” (of the university) is disingenuous. Wong’s protest targeted the vice-chancellor alone. Why did the university feel compelled to lump the whole institution, staff and graduates together and pose as their defender?

The heavy-handed approach and arrogant tone in dealing with dissent reflects badly on the image of the university as an intellectual institution.

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To say Wong “disrupted protocol and smooth running (of the event)” is an exaggeration. The whole incident, at most, slowed down the ceremony by two minutes.

The university’s statement warrants a lengthier rebuttal because it reflects a serious flaw in the inner workings of a public university.

Phrases such as “right time and right place”, “internal feedback mechanism”, and “mature and rational way” have been rhetorically used to reply to any public display of students’ dissent.

Such responses imply that a student representative body or students’ union is legally on an equal footing with the university in dealing with student affairs – which is simply dishonest.

Universities have absolute power to ignore and overrule any students’ referendum. Students’ collective bargaining power is often greatly repressed under the threat of disbandment, suspension and expulsion. Universities fully exploit their unchecked power in closed-door negotiations to their advantage.

The only way for students to level the playing field is to gain public support.

This time, University of Malaya could not take any disciplinary action against Wong as usual, because having graduated, he is now a “free man”. But that did not stop the university from lodging a police report, hoping for “appropriate action”.

Wong’s action was not an impulsive act. It was a deliberate attempt to pressure the university to address the issue of the vice-chancellor’s speech at the Malay Dignity Congress on 6 October.

Wong Yan Ke Facebook

The university simply could not wrap its head around the idea that a single student could muster enough courage to challenge its narrative in public.

The unexpected victory of Pakatan Harapan against all odds has inspired a new crop of youth leaders, more unyielding, more determined and more willing to engage inlong-term struggle. The days when a vice-chancellor could single-handedly crack down on student dissent are over. The harsher the crackdown, the more determined the dissidents carry on.

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To all vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and faculty deans, “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men.”

It is time to put aside your egos and face the students, especially the dissidents, and address them as your equals. If you cannot cope with any open criticism and public shaming for your alleged act of incompetence or abuse of power, you are not fit for high-level leadership positions in the civil service.

Great power comes with public scrutiny, I am sure you know that.

Nah Yan Sheng is a fourth-year student in a public university. He wishes to articulate youth grievances while dispelling social myths on youth issues through his writings. He recently attended an Aliran writer’s workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”.

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