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).
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.
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.
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.
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”.