The much-awaited debate between Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and former Prime Minister Najib Razak will be conducted at the Malaysian Tourism Centre in Kuala Lumpur tonight (12 May).
The politicians will touch on two topics – whether the government should assist cash-strapped oil and gas company Sapura Energy Bhd, and the future of the economy and politics in the country.
Though a venue has finally been decided for the debate, it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
The initial venue was Dewan Tunku Canselor in the University of Malaya, but it had to be changed, with former leaders of the University of Malaya Students’ Union alleging hidden hands that do not want the event to be conducted at the university.
If it is true there was interference from ‘above’, then it is disturbing that a transgression of freedom of academic and expression occurred.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a pledge or schedule an auto donation to Aliran every month or every quarter
- Become an Aliran member
The oldest university in the country is seen to have failed to serve as a platform for robust debates for the benefit of the academic community, particularly students.
It used to hold intellectual vibrancy – particularly in the 1960s, when economic and political issues were debated prior to the enactment of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971.
After Pakatan Harapan gained power in 2018, certain provisions were amended to allow students some political freedom.
It is most unfortunate then that an intellectual discourse was pushed aside by the very institution where the exchange of ideas and views is supposed to be celebrated and welcomed.
Anwar’s dissenting voice – just as the establishment’s voice – deserves to be heard by the academic community, as he represents the opposition, a legitimate political bloc that stands for a substantial portion of the electorate.
This is not the first time that the University of Malaya has shied away from an intellectual engagement involving Anwar. In October 2014, students’ union invited Anwar to give a talk titled “Anwar Ibrahim: 40 Years from UM to jail” at the Dewan Tunku Canselor. However, the venue was closed and plunged into darkness after the administration reportedly cut off power supply in the area – apparently due to maintenance work.
After getting through the university gate, an undaunted Anwar climbed onto the back of a truck parked across the road from the hall, where streetlights were still shining, and spoke into a microphone to a very large crowd of students, who were anxious to know what he had to say.
This incident would have been funny had it not been a serious violation of academic freedom and intellectual decency. The University of Malaya will get a bad reputation if it indeed goes to great lengths to prevent intellectual activities it does not condone.
An unfavoured viewpoint should be rebutted in a manner befitting of a university community, not by banning it like a dictatorial state would.
It also appears that the debate participants themselves have come under the close scrutiny of critics.
While many Malaysians look forward to watching the televised debate, critics have cast doubt on the usefulness of the exchange.
They wonder why Anwar picked Najib as his sparring partner to talk about the economy and financial management when the latter’s financial management experience is questionable, to say the least.
Perhaps Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob would have been a more appropriate choice, given that he has the authority to decide national policies.
Some critics insist the debate – some call it political theatrics – will only highlight Najib’s political profile after he was embroiled in the 1MDB scandal.
“Let’s rock” was the Pekan MP’s reply when invited to participate in the debate – a curious response from someone who used to say that debates are not part of our political culture.
In a sense, Anwar is lending political legitimacy to someone who has been fined RM210m and sentenced to 12 years’ jail for abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.
The much-awaited debate will be the latest in a series of public appearances by Najib, who has appeared at hustings, temples, shopping malls, restaurants and, recently, the palace.
The choice of participants is crucial as it will determine the debate’s worthiness, especially when the topics touch on certain aspects of a society that reeks of corruption, greed, incompetence and the toxic politics of race and religion. – The Malaysian Insight