Hopes were raised and promises were made to thousands of youth during Hari Belia Negara 2011. What’s next? Thoughts from the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports on the Act that stands in the way of youth empowerment.
LAST week, some one million youths converged on Putrajaya over three days to take part in the National Youth Day 2011 celebrations, making this the largest gathering of young Malaysians the country had ever seen.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak spent some six hours at the celebrations, capping his visit by joining youngsters to watch the live telecast of the Manchester United v Barcelona football match until the wee hours.
I was lucky to be able to join the prime minister on some of his walkabouts there. Ministers and other deputy ministers threw protocol out of the window as we sat on the floor at the launching ceremony, held outside my office in Menara KBS, Putrajaya.
When the prime minister announced a slew of government initiatives that sought to empower youths at his launching speech, the tens of thousands of Gen Y-ers cheered with joy.
These efforts — underscored by the prime minister’s focus on last weekend’s celebrations — demonstrate the government’s commitment to touch base with and empower the young, who make up about 43 per cent of the population.
In fact, late last year, the Youth and Sports Ministry conducted a Youth Lab, where about 30 people from diverse backgrounds, almost all under 35, brainstormed for six weeks on how to reach out and empower the youth. The initiatives announced by the prime minister last Saturday were part of the lab’s findings.
One of the policy proposals is the amendment to the Universities and University Colleges Act. Amendments to the act is something close to my heart, and which I have been advocating prior to taking public office. It has always been my belief that the youth of this country should be allowed to develop fully their ideals and realise their potentials in order to prepare them to take over the reins of this country.
However, the act has placed structural limits and prohibitions on varsity students, which prevent them from exploring their roles in political discourse and responding to social and political issues at the local or national level.
Despite amendments in 2009, the act still prohibits student participation in politics, especially in expressing support or even opposition to any political parties in Malaysia.
It is my view that the act has, to a large extent, doused the fire of idealism that burns in youths seeking knowledge on how to make the world a better place when they graduate. I speak from experience, as I had studied in two local universities (International Islamic University and Universiti Malaya) after having read law in London.
Far too often, the act has been misused, the latest against Kolej Universiti Insaniah students in Kedah who had taken part in a peaceful assembly to protest against the construction of Sekolah Intan Bestari. Five students were suspended and one of them fined under the act.
Ironically, the university’s harsh action received explicit support from Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak, although the opposition had opposed the act vehemently in the past. This is a clear-cut example of abuse and disregard for the fundamental rights of the students under the act.
Be that as it may, I am delighted to note that there have been increasing calls for the amendments to the act from within the ruling coalition. Among the more prominent leaders pushing for a review of the act are Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah and Barisan Nasional Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin.
Even my party, MCA, has urged the government to review certain provisions in the act, such as Section 15, which prohibits students’ association with political parties. This is in keeping with the times, where youths today no longer want to be shackled by conformist rules.
The idea of campus chaos once the government loosens the leash is out of touch with today’s reality. It is ironic that Malaysian students abroad can take part in politics, but this right is denied to their peers here. Our political parties have also set up their own supporters’ clubs the world over, which Malaysian students participate in actively, but here, university students can’t even join a rally to support the act, let alone oppose it!
We have also created anomalies where youths who are not in varsity can participate in political activities, but not those on campuses. There are also discrepancies in the treatment of those in public and private institutions of higher learning.
The act also begs the question about what constitute “political activities”? Are they barred from attending rallies, talks, seminars organised by political parties? What about non-governmental organisation events where “political issues” are discussed? Or are they referring to programmes attended by politicians?
At the end of the day, amendments to the act is about empowering the young and stirring their political consciousness. In the dWest, such awareness starts early. My minister, Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek, is fond of reminding us that Tony Blair and David Cameron were only 43 when they became British prime ministers, while Barack Obama was 47 when sworn in as United States president. Young leaders can relate better to the needs of burgeoning young voters and are not tied down by orthodox ideas.
Here, as we come to terms with the dynamic forces of globalisation, we have no choice but to unleash the full potential of our youths so that they are ready to take on the world. And reviewing the Universities and University Colleges Act is one way to do just that, in the same fashion the National Youth Day 2011 celebrations sought to empower young Malaysians and recognise their roles in nation-building. I believe the time has come for us to re-look the relevant restrictive provisions in the act.
* This article was previously published in New Straits Times on 5 June 2011. Read more: http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/22gn/Article/#ixzz1OQMHZsU9
Gan Ping Sieu is the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports, and an MCA vice-president. The views expressed here are his own.