IT IS perfectly legal for university students above the age of 18 to marry, become a director of a company, be tried as an adult, and even be hanged for murder — but politics is off-limits.
This issue – whether the restriction of academic freedom from politics is in the public’s best interest – has posed a dilemma for the authorities since the 1970s, but it has gained momentum lately because of two incidents.
First was Prof Dr Abdul Aziz Bari’s suspension from the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), followed by the landmark Court of Appeal decision on four Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) students.
Prof Abdul Aziz was reportedly suspended after making statements against the Sultan of Selangor, specifically for saying that Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah’s intervention in a recent church raid was “unusual and inconsistent”.
In solidar ity: Students holding up posters during a protest against the suspension of Prof Abdul Aziz at IIUM’s Gombak campus. — File photo
Following student demonstrations at the university, Prof Abdul Aziz was reinstated, but investigations by both the university and the police continued. Both investigations have been reportedly completed.
Just a few days later on Oct 31, the Court of Appeal held that Section 15(a) of the University and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA), which restricts students from expressing support of, or opposing, any political party, was unconstitutional.
In a 2-1 majority decision, the court held that the provision was unreasonable and violated freedom of speech.
The appeal was brought by UKM Political Science undergraduates Muhammad Hilman Idham, Woon King Chai, Muhammad Ismail Aminuddin and Azlin Shafina Mohamad Adza, who faced disciplinary action for being present during the campaign for the Hulu Selangor parliamentary by-election on April 24 last year.
Justice Mohd Hishamuddin Mohd Yunus’ 21-page judgement was perhaps the most strongly-worded of the three judges, calling the provision an “irrational” impediment on students’ critical thinking.
The effect of this ruling is uncertain and while some like Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah argue that the provision is invalid, others like Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz maintain that the Act is still law.
It is still unclear if the matter will be brought to the Federal Court — the country’s highest court.
Additionally, there is a further complication to freedom of association within the Constitution itself; Article 10(3) of the Constitution allows for the restrictions on the right to form associations through any law relating to labour and education.
History of the Act
The UUCA was first tabled in Parliament in 1971, just a few years after the riots of May 13, 1969.
Speaking in Parliament, then Education Minister Tun Hussein Onn explained that the Act was derived from the findings of two Government committees which were initially set up to study the establishment of two new universities – Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and UKM.
Expounding on the meaning of “academic freedom”, Hussein said that it included the absence of discriminatory treatment and the right to teach according to individual conception of fact and truth instead of any pre-determined orthodoxy.
“Such freedom may be permitted in Western countries where a sophisticated public does not get excited over racial or religious issues.
“Sir, in the Government’s view, Malaysia has not yet developed sufficient sophistication to permit total freedom in this respect and in the interest of the public as a whole, it is necessary that the individual teacher should conform to the law ... to play down racial and religious animosities,” he said.
Hussein further added that the law was not meant to prevent students from taking an active part in politics or unions as individuals.
“Section 15(2) merely prevents them from holding positions in such organisations.
“If students choose to involve themselves in political or union activities, then they will be subject to the same laws used on politicians and other union members,” he said.
Restrictions on the political involvement of academics and students were attempted even before 1971. Most notable of the restrictions was the short-lived “suitability certificate” for incoming students in a bid to “weed out communist elements” from local campuses.
It also pays to note that students were already making national headlines for their political participation before the UUCA was enacted.
The main event was prior to the general elections in 1969, when the University of Malaya Students Union came up with a manifesto that called for democratic rights, education reform, minimum wage policies, and independent foreign policy and agrarian reforms.
The students held roadshows in 13 parliamentary constituencies to pledge their support to any political candidate who endorsed their manifesto.
The roving students spoke to crowds of about 10,000 before authorities clamped down on their tour.
With this historical element to the student movement, it was unsurprising that the newly enacted UUCA drew further student protests from 1971 to 1973.
In 1975, the UUCA was amended with harsher restrictions and penalties – this time the implied threat was that of communism.
While tales of communist insurgents may seem alarmist now in 2011, the Cold War mentality back then was understandable; whether or not there was a real threat was immaterial as long as there was a perception of such a threat.
The amendments also came against a backdrop of massive student protests in tandem with the “peasant uprising” of Baling, Kedah in late 1974 where over 1,000 students were arrested as a result.
Elaborating on the “communist elements” in Indo-China, then Education Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad expressed the need for Malaysia to be single-minded in its pursuit of development during the tabling of the 1975 amendments in Parliament.
He added that the nation needed the services of many trained individuals within the context of the New Economic Policy.
“To produce these trained people, we must utilise to the fullest the facilities and resources at our disposal.
“We cannot indulge in luxuries which will undermine our efforts. We cannot afford to be diverted from our objective. It is imperative therefore that we ruthlessly shoulder out of our way all our detractors, both within and outside the country.
“We have work to do, work which requires even greater concentration of effort now that the international scene is fast changing,” Dr Mahathir said.
In 2009, further amendments were made to the UUCA, but this time with the view of “liberalising” the Act, by allowing students to join any organisation without any prior permission from university authorities and removing all criminal penalties for students who violated university laws.
However, students are still prohibited from joining political parties and organisations declared to be unlawful, as well as organisations specified by the Higher Education Minister as being unsuitable for student involvement.
This prohibition is further couched in vague terms; students are not to show support, sympathy or opposition to any political party. It is left to the authorities to construe what sort of acts would reflect “support”, “sympathy” and “opposition”.
Meanwhile, academics are governed by the Discipline of Staff Rules 1979 gazetted by the government under the UUCA, which prohibits staff from making any public statement supportive of any political party, and from publishing materials relating to political parties (apart from material which was part of and based on their academic research).
Political statements may only be made at academic seminars, which even then is only permissible with the vice-chancellor’s authorisation.
The publication of “sensitive” material is also restricted by the authorities; an example of this is the infamous gag-order issued during the country’s haze problems in 1997.
The Cabinet then barred academics from local public tertiary institutions from “making negative statements” about the environment, and the reasoning offered was that the “bad publicity about the haze was capitalised by the foreign media”.
Needless to say, the foreign media in question had a field day with the ban, prompting authorities to respond that the ban was only for the haze and not all issues.
The UUCA for academics is dwarfed however, by an even more effective law — the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act, 2000 or Act 605, enforced by the Aku Janji contracts that public university academics have been forced to sign since 2002.
Under this provision, academics are barred from making public statements on government policies, regardless of their expertise.
The underlying sentiment behind the Act seems to be that the entire academic framework will crumble if students are allowed political freedom, and campuses will turn into arenas of anti-government dissent if academics are allowed to criticise public policies.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin asked students if they were truly “ready” for life without the UUCA, and if they were mature enough to carry on without neglecting their studies.
The return volley came the next day via a statement by Universiti Malaya (UM) student council president Mohd Syahid Mohd Zaini: “As a student leader, I must say that we students have been ready for a long time. The question is whether the government is really serious about abolishing the Act.”
Perhaps a more prudent question to ask is what we mean by political awareness, and whether a university education should include exposure to such consciousness.
It almost seems that a bulk of the debate over whether university students should be politically active is hampered by a narrow view of what politics is.
Furthermore, the word “politics” has come to represent a seedy underworld that our “pure” students should remain untainted by until they complete the rigorous pursuit of knowledge at their respective ivory towers.
This is a worrying argument to project upon our young generation, as it tells them that the notion of civic responsibility and citizen rights are best left untouched.
Academics have reportedly warned that “interested parties” may exploit any political freedom granted to students to serve their own personal agenda.
“Is there any guarantee that they will not come under the exploitation of these groups?” asked one such academic.
Since an 18-year-old is deemed an adult in the eyes of the law, perhaps it is worth wondering whether this same standard of maturity would apply to determine one’s ability to be ideologically “exploited”.
Some critics of UUCA reforms further fear that students’ anti-Government stand may be limited to dogma or uninformed rebellion.
These are not unfounded fears, as some students simply criticise for the sake of criticism, without looking at issues constructively.
Observing student elections in some campuses, one can be forgiven for thinking that candidates stand for sides rather than actual issues affecting their peers.
But arguably, such reasoning implies that we do not trust our students to act like rational adults.
Even more alarming is that such reasoning indicates that our universities are unable to train our students to think rationally.
If all Malaysia demands from a university education is to acquire sufficient knowledge to tick off employment forms, then perhaps lofty ideals of critical enquiry and political consciousness are irrelevant.