Peaceful street protests are the manifestations of freedom of expression and assembly that are enjoyed by the citizenry in a functioning democracy, says Mustafa K Anuar.
Students, particularly those studying in tertiary institutions, are often warned by the powers that be of their duty, nay priority in life, which is to study diligently whenever sections of the student population start to show a keen interest in expressing publicly their views and principled stand on issues of national and political import.
You get the feeling that the ruling politicians tend to get jittery when they sense that a “political act” by these students is about to gain traction among many members of the general public as well as civil society groups and opposition political parties. It is especially so if the ruling group’s diktat is seen as being defied by such students.
So out of the woodwork sprang recently the likes of the education minister and senior politicians like Wanita Umno leader Shahrizat Abdul Jalil to remind — in a patronising fashion — proponents of the TangkapMO1 (Tangkap Malaysian Official 1) rally led by the vocal and plucky Anis Syafiqah Mohd Yusuf, to focus on their studies and not waste their time on the streets.
For the uninitiated, MO1 refers to the somewhat elusive character that was mentioned many times by the US Department of Justice in its investigative report regarding the 1MDB scandal.
Prompted by the aim to put a damper on the students’ determination to hold the rally at Dataran Merdeka today, Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz chipped in by likening the proposed gathering at the historical site to having a protest at an individual’s house, which is an unintelligent analogy in the first place.
The former is surely a public place while the latter is a private domain that has no historical significance.
As if not to be outdone by the politicians, the president of the alumni of the pro-establishment Mahasiswa Aspirasi Malaysia, Mohd Shahar Abdullah, cautioned students not to be manipulated by, and be “puppets” of the opposition parties in their desire to seek social and political changes in society.
In many ways, Shahar has belittled the intelligence and commitment of student activist Anis Syafiqah and her friends whose primary objective is to seek redress — without having to resort to partisanship — to the financial scandal that has overwhelmed this country and which has dire consequences on present and future generations.
Besides, they are also aware of their obligation towards their studies. So let the public decide who the “puppets” really are.
Such verbal deterrents as employed by Shahrizat and her ilk serve to reinforce the conscious act of depoliticising students in the country that has been going on for a very long time. This refers to the various endeavours on the part of the powers that be to desensitise students, to a certain degree, to particular concrete and pressing issues in society that have serious consequences, such as corruption, social injustice, ethnic and gender discrimination, widening socio-economic disparities, abject poverty, accountability, and abuse of power.
Such social issues are obviously a far cry from the kinds that are generally permitted by the students’ affairs department of local universities for the students to address especially during campus elections, such as clogged drains on campus, the quality of canteen food and students’ safety.
In a sense, by discouraging, if not denying, students the opportunity to be conscientious and concerned about a particular social issue— and sharing peacefully such social concerns with others on the street – the government has often blunted the idealism of certain quarters among the young generation.
Idealism to attain what is best for society is vital for the psyche particularly of the youth. It is the crucial ingredient in the effort to mould a good character among the young in the country. Besides, this would help harness one of the important values in our life, i.e. compassion, which is diametrically opposite to being kiasu.
Furthermore, to slam student activism and street demonstrations is tantamount to devaluing the positive political contribution made by student activists who staged street protests in the history of our country as well as by their counterparts in neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, which have experienced dictatorship or authoritarianism and social injustice, among other ugly things in life.
Besides, the concrete issues staring at our faces serve as solid examples of what these students have studied and debated in their classroom interactions. In other words, the theoretical has not been divorced from the harsh realities in society, thereby making universities ever more relevant in their larger social context.
Incidentally, to consciously not involve oneself in “political actions” such as participating in peaceful street protests is also political in the widest sense of the word.
As we approach the 59th anniversary of the Merdeka that was achieved by then Malaya from the colonial British, it is disturbing to learn that there are still quarters in our midst, particularly the ruling elite, who quibble over the value and significance of street demonstrations in public spaces.
By now it should have been adequately understood by most of us that peaceful street protests are the manifestations of freedom of expression and assembly that are enjoyed by the citizenry in a functioning democracy.
The powers that be need not fear the Anis Syafiqahs of this world. If anything, they should embrace and celebrate the latter for the sake of the country’s future.