Surely you must have heard the latest and hottest news in town: of Adam Adli, an UPSI student and coordinator of Legasi Mahasiswa Progresif (LMP), coming under fire for his actions in a student march which culminated at PWTC on 17 December 2011.
Both of us were not at the scene of the march, so what we know will be based on the news report as well as eyewitness accounts of those who were at the protest.
The march began at Masjid Jamek LRT station and the objective was to a present memorandum at PWTC and at SUHAKAM headquarters. The march itself was without incident, in fact what was noteworthy was the cooperation given by the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) to the protesters, in which they facilitated the march instead of trying to stop it as what usually happens. This is much welcomed, and hopefully this will herald a new approach to policing and future protests be handled similarly.
The current controversy is in relation to an incident in PWTC. It would seem that emotions got the better of some of the students at PWTC. A flag, bearing the Prime Minister’s face, was lowered and replaced with the flag of BEBAS. It happened briefly, the original flag was raised back up as quickly as it came down. The incident took place not more than 5 to 10 minutes, and in the words of @KohJL on Twitter:
Never has so much been said about so little. I saw incident and didn’t even think it was newsworthy. I’ve been proven very wrong
But newsworthy it was indeed. The storm of controversy that followed the aftermath of the incident (Flag-gate, anyone? You heard here first, on LB!) is well documented. In fact, the flag incident has overshadowed the march of the mahasiswa so much so that no one seems to be talking about the real issue behind the events that Saturday. It would appear that all we that we took from the march was the Flag-gate incident.
It is interesting to note how much this incident has garnered divided opinions and perspectives, from within the mahasiswa movement itself and the larger civil society.
Those in support of what Adam did say that it is a flag with the PM’s face and not the Jalur Gemiling. Some say that students did not burn nor trample the flag and merely lowered it. To them, there is nothing wrong with the action – it is a display of dissent and dissatisfaction with the government. Some have even accorded the act with a sense of symbolism, when quite clearly it was something which was not planned at the time did not have the endorsement of the organisers. It was only later that BEBAS did so retrospectively. As such, to say that the act is supposed to a symbolic one sounds like an afterthought and a rather disingenuous one at that.
On the other side of the spectrum, those against what Adam did described it as lacking courtesy at best, and biadap at worst. @ZainHD described it on Twitter (edited for clarity):
Whatever your affiliations, get it right. Don’t step into someone’s PRIVATE PROPERTY & do something that will LIKELY INSULT them. Understand respect.
Some students themselves (within the movement and the same circle) feel that the actions by BEBAS do not represent the entire student segment of the citizenry. Even though they walked with BEBAS on Saturday, or have been ardent supporters of the movement to expand student freedom and university autonomy, they do not agree with the act. They use the analogy of someone coming by your house, your very own private property, and starts messing around with your garden on your property.
Unfortunately, Flag-gate has degenerated into a partisan farce. Those in UMNO are going after Adam and BEBAS. Those in PKR meanwhile have thrown their support behind Adam and BEBAS. It is with this backdrop that the public discourse regarding Flag-gate is taking place.
BEBAS had no control what Adam did and it would appear that the movement did not plan to do what Adam did. So they could not be held responsible for what happened. What we disagree to is the response by BEBAS to the backlash. Instead of taking a step back to re-evaluate the situation and to take in the bigger picture of how political liberalization is an evolutionary process, they have instead opted to go forth with guns blazing.
Make no mistake, we condemn the threats against Adam, which so far includes threats to slap and spit on him. And while we do not agree in principle with Adam’s act, we also think that the backlash is disproportionate to the ‘crime’. It is after all just a flag with the Prime Minister’s face and it was just briefly lowered.
But BEBAS could have seen the bigger picture. They were asked to apologise, and while we do not see a need to do so, they could have instead chosen the more reconciliatory approach. The confrontational stance they have taken and their retrospective endorsement of Adam’s act have ironically damaged the movement and the cause.
Detractors of the cause are now using Flag-gate to discredit the cause. They are using this incident as proof that the mahasiswa should not be given their freedoms. The erstwhile @mpkotabelud tweeted:
Next it’ll be burning, spitting, tearing & stepping on Jalur Gemilang. Why the hell not? It’s freedom of speech & expression what!
The hardliners in UMNO have also found their ammunition against Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, one of the few true progressives in the party who not only talk of it, but also acts on it. We find it sad that Flag-gate is being used against the mahasiswa movement’s benefactor and greatest ally in government.
Time to put things back into perspective. It was a historic march, the culmination of years and years of mahasiswa empowerment. It should symbolise the coming of age of student activism, the day when the mahasiswa showed to the world that they no longer are afraid of the shackles of AUKU, placed upon them by a government fearful of the mahasiswa. The fact that the students marched peacefully to forward their cause for academic freedom without any violence or sabotage from anyone should take precedent over Flag-gate.
The very fact that SUHAKAM, through its commissioner Muhammad Sha’ani Abdullah, received the memorandum is recognition of the inalienable rights of the mahasiswa by the statutory body. Similarly, the fact that the memorandum was received by Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, Deputy Higher Education Minister and stalwart supporter of student political participation, is tacit acknowledgment by the government of the perjuangan.
Lest our views are misconstrued as losing faith in the students’ ability to handle the responsibility of political expression and affiliation, we reiterate a popular quote from Evelynn Beatrice Hall, in her work “Friends of Voltaire”:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Likewise, while we disagree with the methods and tactics employed, we must stand in solidarity together with those who believed in the same cause of advancing student freedom and university autonomy. Flag-gate must not be allowed to be used as an argument to take away from the very same struggle that has been fought for by many generations of students for over four decades.
Those fighting for the cause, regardless of whether it is BEBAS, PKR, PAS, Dato’ Saifuddin, youth wings within Barisan Nasional and civil society must stand together instead of being divided over Flag-gate. The cause is a political cause, but it should not be allowed to become a partisan one.
The cause is far, far bigger than Flag-gate. Let us turn Flag-gate into a positive. BEBAS, while possibly causing damage to the cause, have also put the focus on its movement. Before Nelson Mandela promoted his cause through dialogues, writing, speeches and thereafter reconciliation, he also committed acts of sabotage. It was part and parcel of the struggle. Maybe this is also part and parcel of the perjuangan mahasiswa. And since the nation’s attention is already on this issue, let use it to bring the spotlight onto the cause itself, rather than the incident.
Syah and King Chai are respectively a constitutionalist and a student-rights activist. They would also like to thank ZainHD for his assistance in the completion of this co-authored piece.