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Clamping down on students

SPEAKING at the Muslim Students Leadership Convention on 26 July 2009, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said he wanted “to see student leaders with dynamic and healthy minds in terms of airing views and opinions”.

“I just hope that you can uphold the principle of intellectual honesty in assessing and scrutinising certain issues which arise from time to time,” Najib said. However, the premier cautioned young thinkers to avoid becoming “activists” by spreading malicious slander and rumours. “It is important that the undergraduates are not diverted from the right track.”

The “right track”, of course, is a vague phrase that could mean a variety of things. And it is difficult not to view Najib’s statements with some suspicion in the light of a recent surge in arrests of university students and student leaders.

The crime of being anti-Rosmah

Perhaps the first incident in the current series of events was the arrest, on 27 June 2009, of Mohamad Izuddin Helmi Mohd Zaini and Muhammad Syahrul Deen Mohd Rosli, two Universiti Malaya (UM) students studying at UM’s Islamic Studies Academy (Api).

Illustration of uniformed man with shield that says UUCA Sec 15, and electrified baton
 (© Shieko)

The two were detained for seven days on the suspicion of having been involved in the anti-Rosmah Mansor graffiti incident at Api. On 30 June, both were charged for mischief under Sections 427 and 436 of the Penal Code.

Following the arrests, a memorandum submitted by student groups to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) alleged that the duo had been arrested at their residence by plainclothes officers, who sported firearms, but came without warrants or police identification.

The graffiti is easily classified as vandalism, and the scrawls — “demon wife” and “Altantuya’s killer”, obvious references to the allegations against the prime minister’s spouse — are perhaps defamatory. But these were suspects, not yet proven guilty. And how the arrests were made breached the Criminal Procedure Code.

But this wasn’t the only case of students being shabbily treated by the authorities.

“Malays only”

On the evening of 12 July, Ong Jing Cheng and Yap Heng Lung, members of Malaysian Youth and Students Democratic Movement (Dema), rode into the UM campus, after clearing campus security. Their destination? The Api. “I just wanted to meet my friends in UM,” Ong tells The Nut Graph.

campus on UM
A campus in UM (© Eric Beerkens)

Ong and Yap, former Universiti Sains Malaysia students, were later stopped by UM security officers, who informed them that the “Api was a place for Malays”, and that “Chinese should not be there”. The police were called, and both were taken to the Pantai police station.

According to Ong, UM security had no good reason to stop him. “We wanted to lodge a report against (the UM security guards),” Ong says. “But the police practised double standards. They only listened to the security guards, but did not let us lodge our report.”

Both Ong and Yap were released on 14 July, after over 40 hours in the police lockup. There were no charges.

Protesting not allowed, sometimes

Another incident noted by the memo to Suhakam, jointly prepared by six student groups including Dema, was the arrest of students during a 17 July Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM) action. The SMM had marched peacefully to the Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to submit a memo calling for the cessation of state violence in southern Thailand.

While they complied with police instructions, seven students were strong-armed, then arrested by police officers. They were also denied legal counsel.

“Intellectual honesty” and the healthy expression of “views and opinions” is probably difficult, when instruments of authority seem adamant in running roughshod over students’ rights to express any sort of opinion.

Even more so if their opinions differ from government-sanctioned ideas. Compare the incident in front of the Thai Embassy to a protest by students from Insaniah University College, Alor Setar, on 8 Jan, against Israeli aggression in Palestine.

Khaled Nordin (source:

Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin, following the protest, said that students were allowed to express their stand, because of (then) recent amendments made to the repressive Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) 1971.

“It is up to the university if they want to organise such protests,” Mohamed Khaled said.

In its final sitting for 2008, Parliament debated, and subsequently passed, amendments to the UUCA. These amendments were criticised from the outset.

Freedom of association

At a glance, the UUCA amendments appeared to be a step towards reform, removing the ban on university students from joining off-campus groups and societies. Yet the amendment to Section 15 of the Act — which governs scholars’ freedom of association — still prevented university students from affiliating with political parties and organisations deemed “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the university”.

“Students are not restricted to have their own activities or interaction with the politicians or political parties, as long as these are related to academic issues such as organising forums on the petrol hike,” Mohamed Khaled had said.

But Ong points out that the amendments meant little change over the way students were being controlled. “Even after the amendment, university authorities can still stop activities (arbitrarily),” Ong says.

Tony Pua
“The UUCA allows university authorities to selectively exercise their powers against that which they regard as being unacceptable,” co-higher education shadow minister for the Pakatan Rakyat, Tony Pua, tells The Nut Graph.

Aside from calling for the UUCA’s repeal, Pua, from the DAP, also zeroed in on the failing of university administrators.

“Currently, they are missing the wood for the trees,” Pua, a long-time education advocate, opines.

He maintains that student activism generally does not affect academic performance — and that the administrators should work on improving the quality of their respective institutions’ education, rather than cracking down on students.

Hishamuddin Rais (Pic courtesy of
Christy Bradley)
Public intellectual Hishamuddin Rais, relating his experiences as a student leader in the mid-1970s, explains that student activism “advances the potential of each individual, by training them in various skills, like organising.”

And isn’t personal enhancement the point, after all, of pursuing any sort of education, tertiary or otherwise?

Hishamuddin believes that the recent crackdown against students was meant to put fear into young minds. Ong agrees. “The actions of the police tell students: ‘If you go to demonstrations, we will arrest you for a few days.’ “

This just lends weight to the earlier criticisms about how the state wants to continue controlling students. The authorities’ actions against students over the past few months speaks volumes about what exactly the current administration means by the “right track”. Favicon

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6 Responses to “Clamping down on students”

  1. Anti Racist says:

    Thank you Zedeck, for slanting what was supposed to be an anti-draconian news into a racial one. I guess we all know by now being Malaysian means being anti-Malay.

  2. wayang lara says:

    Being Malaysian does not mean you’re anti-Malay. It means you are anti-racism and racists, which some of us have not yet become.

  3. Anti Anti Anti Racist says:

    Thank you Anti-Racist for your devastating insight.

    Until we perfect the technique of bringing forth no-race, ethnically-blank students (presumably from test-tube babies?), Zedeck will henceforth refrain from reporting on the crippling of our universities.

  4. Nicholas Aw says:

    This is the problem in Malaysia: the practice of double standards. Any voice that seems to be in dissent is acted upon instantly. Believe me; if students were to ‘protest’ where their action is deemed to be in support of the BN government, then it is okay.

    The statement made by Higher Education Minister, Mohamad Khalid Nordin is nothing more than just a political statement to portray the government as one willing to allow students to express themselves. As much as the BN government wants to deny it, the policy of the current ruling government is that of double standards. This action is probably due to the fear for the growing dissent of young people against the government as could be seen from recent events.

  5. Azizi Khan says:

    The Malaysian education process is not designed to create minds that are on par with some of the most brilliant men and women in the world. Rather it is designed to create an army of mindless drones that lap up everything that is fed to them.

    How many students these days even bother finding out [alternative] means of information? Besides even the lecturers themselves have no need to better themselves. Unless one has political alignment with a certain political party, one cannot hope for career advancement.

    Having been to USM countless times and spoken with the “undergrads” and “postgrads” there, you get the appearance that it’s all about force-fed education so much so it borders on brainwashing.

    From experience, student segregation works in two ways. One is by influx of political influence that works on the minds of new undergrads to seed “us against them” mentality. The other is by the university itself promoting favouritism for a specific (dominant) race. The same goes with students dealing with the university.

    So by the time the undergrad graduates which is in three to four years – you have a fully functioning mindless racist drone ready to be moulded to suit political purposes.

    Of course there are always the “difficult ones”. The ones that refuse to be brainwashed. “Akujanji” was effectively put in place to ensure blind loyalty. (I mean in all honesty, who pledges to a university? Whats next – your local bank? Your employer?)


  6. Main says:

    Lodge complaint and complain and complain until someone listens, make it official – if not it will be taken as an excuse to demonstrate.

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