It would be an understatement to say that something is brewing in our local campuses.
This past month alone has seen a slew of student-organised dialogues on issues ranging from academic freedom to the ethics of using nuclear energy.
But not all of these have been smooth-sailing affairs.
On Friday night, a debate between two student groups in Universiti Malaya over the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) was said to be repeatedly interrupted by the university’s administration and guards.
The debate was between Pro-Aspirasi (seen to be pro-establishment) who were in support of amendments to the Act, and Pro-Mahasiswa (supposedly anti-establishment) who wish to do away with the Act completely.
According to Twitter updates of the debate, after guards attempted to stop the event, both sides unanimously agreed on a total abolishment of the Act.
A student addressing her peers at UM’s speaker’s corner. - File photo
At a forum organised by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) History, Politics and Strategy Club, DAP Socialist Youth chief Anthony Loke called on his audience of 70-odd students to voice their toughest questions.
“Since (Deputy Higher Education Minister) Datuk Saifuddin (Abdullah) isn’t here, you will have to fill the gap; it’s less fun to speak on a panel if there is no real debate,” he said, to a chorus of laughter.
Just days earlier, the club’s president Amir Farid posted an “open invitation” to all local political parties for a forum to discuss party policies and why they deserved the student vote.
The invite wryly stated that parties who did “restricted” representatives from attending will be deemed as not having enough “concern” for student voters.
It also reminded representatives to expect no “VIP treatment” as it was to be a “minimalist carbon friendly event”.
As a final punch line to organising such an event, the invite added that as “UKM celebrates the culture of academics and excellence ... we seek to end the accusations that UKM prohibits students from politics”.
DAP, PKR and Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) showed up on the night of the forum, and although Saifuddin was initially scheduled to appear as the BN representative, he was held up in Parliament during the passing of the Budget 2012.
Loke’s encouragement to be “tough” paid off however, because the question and answer portion of the forum was a rapid-fire articulation of wit and depth by the students.
“There’s nothing new here,” a lanky, long-haired Chinese youth started asking.
“My presence here (at the forum) is no different from reading your Twitter, blogs or articles.
“I was hoping that we would be talking about what is going to happen, not what has happened.”
Chiding the scope of the discussion, he continued with his worries of students and politicians not moving beyond “party politics”.
“I want to know what Occupy Wallstreet is going to do to our economy; I want to know how the EU (European Union) economic crisis is going to impact Malaysia.
“This is the level of politicians and students, talking about WiFi (access) and the UUCA – these things can be solved.
“The fact that we are all here right now means that something is very wrong with our universities, but this is not being discussed in a holistic and comprehensive manner.
“Students too, are just joining political parties and only present for press conferences and picture-taking at demonstrations, but where are they when it comes to the actual work of mobilising the grassroots?” he said to claps and cheers.
Identifying herself as a UKM alumnus and Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (Jerit) member, another young woman had comments of a similar vein.
“I see many student activists who are active for three years (of university), then they join political parties – where are they in civil society?
“Is it just more glamorous to be part of a political party?
“For the past three years I’ve been trying to recruit students here to help work on issues like workers’ rights and settlement issues with the grassroots, but it has been a failure,” she said.
She added that student activism should extend beyond university life to address socio-economic matters.
“The rakyat is looking to you (students) to be their voice because you have no economic or political interest.
“Be the check and balance to whomever is in power, so that our lives don’t depend on politicians but the rakyat itself,” she said.
Others were more compact – and blunt – in their views:
“I am not quite satisfied with the answers given, they were not at all dynamic.”
“I think when it comes to sensitive issues, such as the recent one of Seksualiti Merdeka, politicians are being populist rather than sticking to principles of truth and justice.”
“You have yet to properly answer the question of what should be done to lecturers who are ineffective teachers.”
“Politicians now seem to be spreading slander rather than ideas; maybe this needs to be reformed first if students are to be interested in politics.”
The frustration of youth was even more palpable at another student forum, this time held at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall late last month.
Interestingly, some of the most bitter remarks came from a member of the panel itself; young filmmaker and self-styled historian of the student movement Fahmi Reza.
Railing against the lack of unity among students, Fahmi launched into an impassioned speech on the failings of the entire system of governance.
“The problem now is that politicians think that they own universities, when in fact they belong to the rakyat.
“The problem isn’t the UUCA, the problem is poor governance and lack of participation.
“I’m not presenting you the history (of the past student movements of the 1960s and 70s) for the sake of nostalgia.
“It’s for you to judge for yourselves; based on this evidence of how strong the former student unions were, are we moving forward or backward?” he said.
Rant or not, Fahmi’s words appeared to resonate with the packed room of about 120 people.
And again, there was an avalanche of biting questions from the audience:
“When I wanted to do my thesis on the position of royalty within the constitution, I was told to drop the subject because it was ‘sensitive’. Is this what we mean by encouraging students to think critically and widen their knowledge?”
“Our entire generation is in debt from having a tertiary education that is useless in the market. Why is our pay nowhere near the cost of education?”
“Will the political parties be here at this forum if the general elections weren’t around the corner?”
Saifuddin, who was present at this forum, was even moved to acknowledge the heavy tension in the room.
“I’m seeing and listening and ‘holding’ the anger, and I think I understand where it’s coming from.
“I’m not politicking here; we need to express this (frustration) together by actually listening, discussing and talking to each other.
“This is a start,” he said.
Mingling among the crowd after the session, a private college student lamented the lack of political and social consciousness among his peers.
“It’s just me and small group of friends. The others seem to have this restricted mindset of just going to class, studying, then getting a job.
“But with this sort of things going on in the country at the moment, you can’t turn away from it anymore; we don’t even know if we can get decent jobs after graduating.
“We need to stop wasting time on pointless arguments and start talking openly about real issues,” he said.
In the same way, the raucous debate over student freedoms has chiefly centred on the UUCA, which in turn has been mostly confined to the relationship between students and political party “influence”.
Judging by the sort of discourse happening on the ground however, students seem to be disenchanted with their situation in general and have bigger concerns aping empty political rhetoric.
Instead of heated protests and demonstrations, the real disenfranchisement of the youth may be a quieter kind, trickling slowly in dialogue sessions, coffee shop discussions and social media postings.
The question is, are we going to permit young people to speak up and facilitate this in a productive manner?