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How can universities be ‘agents of change’ while UUCA remains law?

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In early September, the higher education minister spoke at the opening of the national convention of the UiTM’s student representative council, urging university students to play more significant roles in bringing about reform and shaping the values of our society.

The minister’s message was really about empowering students and lecturers, but how sincere or doable is it?

Many in Malaysia feel it is impossible for universities in this country to be agents of change due to the existence of oppressive laws like the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) and the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act 2000.

The minister’s advice appears utterly useless. To date, the responses of most politicians to the concerns of campus students and lecturers – most of which revolve around these two acts – have been nothing more than rhetorical.

At the UiTM convention, the minister also said that many historical records around the world show how student movements have successfully brought about change in a country. He referred to South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, among others.

There are many examples of student movements in Malaysia’s history as well. However, over the decades, we seem to have either forgotten or deliberately ignored what Malaysian universities were like before the two acts.

In Malaya, between the 1930s and the 1950s, there was a youth awakening of sorts. This was part of a very active student anti-colonial resistance across the colonised Global South. Equally significant is that most of Malaya’s student activism then was not violent, divisive, disruptive or transgressive.

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Syed Husin Ali elaborates on this in his 2018 book on the development of nationalism in Malaysia. According to him, student political consciousness emerged in Malaya as a reaction to the inadequate education provided to the Malays under British colonial rule.

In 1962 the Kuala Lumpur campus of the University of Malaya broke away as a separate entity from Singapore, with the Singapore campus renamed as the University of Singapore. The then University of Malaysia students’ union initially focused its attention on students’ welfare and other campus matters. It was not focused on national politics.

However, later during the late 1960s, student activists began to voice their concerns about social and international issues such as the problems of villagers, workers, and the Vietnam and Arab-Israeli wars. They also protested on issues of language, culture and the status of Islam in Malaysian politics.

It is worth noting that at the time, the University of Malaya’s only political club was the Socialist Club, with members such as Syed Hamid Ali (Syed Husin Ali’s brother), Sanusi Osman and Hishamuddin Rais.

An interesting fact is that only 2% of the total student body at the University of Malaya was involved then in students’ societies or the students’ union. Fewer than half of this small group were ‘radical activists’.

The Ministry of Higher Education and the Anwar Ibrahim administration should accept that student activism has been part and parcel of the country’s history and university life. Anwar himself knows this very well.

Politicians should not feel irrationally threatened, which is what persisting with the UUCA and the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act 2000 suggests.

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Another important fact is that the UUCA was enacted in 1971, in the aftermath of the May 13 riots in 1969. If student activism in universities was a real threat to our society, the act would have been enacted long before 1969, given the presence of radical groups since the 1940s and 50s.

So, it makes sense to rethink and gradually abolish the UUCA. It is part of an oppressive cocktail of legislature meant to control all forms of political consciousness, intellectual awakening, critical thinking and scholar activism.

If ordinary people in Malaysia are to take the minister’s words seriously (about shaping the nation’s values), politicians must acknowledge and embrace our own history of student activism.

History reveals that the 1950s and 60s were tumultuous decades globally, and Malaya/Malaysia was very much a part of this. Widespread protests took place in Europe and the US, as well as in the developing, colonised Global South. Such movements also inspired protest art and music.

For example, the famous Woodstock music festival of August 1969 was a highly political event. India’s Bengal School of Art was led by protest artists such Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose.

Second, the protests on many campuses worldwide were related specifically to the Vietnam War. Students’ protests, including in Malaya, were against US involvement in the war, on moral grounds.

Third, students and lecturers were reacting to several high-profile assassinations during the 1960s – eg US President John F Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Hasan Ali Mansur (the then Prime Minister of Iran), Ngo Dinh Diem (the President of the Republic of Vietnam) and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (the Prime Minister of Nigeria). There was also civil unrest in Indonesia and our own May 13 racial riots.

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Therefore, how are we to ‘brain’ the minister’s suggestion that university students should shape the nation’s values, when we ignore two things – first, that the tight link between our public university system and politics, political patronage and cronyism inhibit student and scholar activism; and second, “shaping values” will never happen under such conditions.

It is impossible to nurture independent minds when intellectual creativity and freedom to explore all knowledge is stifled. An imprisoned mind becomes lethargic, dull and uncaring. Such a mind would not want to shape the nation’s values. – Free Malaysia Today

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
11 Dec 2023 9.32am

University students are the vanguard of upholding political policies and ensuring the local politicians behave in the interests of the citizens, and not their own self-interests and indulging in personal corruption. University students are not owned by big corporations, hence they are independent, except for those who hold scholarships given by them.

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