Vince Tan considers student autonomy and the Malaysian campus.
We all know that gone are the days when students had the right to run their own universities. The introduction of the Universities and Universities Colleges Act (UUCA) in 1971 took away the right of students to govern their own university with their own Student Union and created a body called Students Affair Division also known as Hal Ehwal Pelajar (HEP) in Malay as the main body taking care of student welfare. The current Student Council — better known as Majlis Perwakilan Pelajar (MPP) — which is elected by students through electoral process in local public universities exists only as a puppet body which performs “sandiwara”, as if they have a final say in the making of major decisions where the particular university is concern. All big decisions relating to the university are made without taking into consideration the voices of the students, and it is even doubted that the Student Council can influence the decision of the stakeholder involved. So where does the concept of “Ketuanan Mahasiswa” comes in? Does the siswa really deserve the title “maha” in its name?
With the next Campus Election due to be held in two weeks’ time, I expect the same old song being played where elected students are going to play the role of powerless Yang Berhormats, unable to fight for change in terms of student autonomy and promotion of better student welfare. Unless a big change happens to the system in terms of legislative reforms and institutional reforms, I don’t see campus elections going anywhere for the time being. It is also self evident that there exists two separate “Political Parties” in campuses nationwide, namely the pro-establishment student group called ‘pro-aspirasi’ and the anti-establishment student group called the ‘pro-mahasiswa’. Each student group fights for their own respective interest without actually targeting the main issue of how to get back the student autonomy which they have been deprived of for decades. Thus, no matter who wins the campus elections, we will still see the same thing every year. Without student autonomy, I bet we will see a rehash of the “Listen, Listen, Listen” incident in different forms, as students continue being oppressed by their universities.
I would like to next touch upon several implications regarding the lack of student autonomy and student governance in universities. Firstly, not only we would not be able to produce great leaders with critical thinking from our local universities, but we would also see a culture of indoctrination by the authorities of the students. I do not deny the fact that coming from the so-called ‘best university in Malaysia’, I myself have experienced this so-called indoctrination. More fascinating is the fact that the students who are indoctrinated then go around indoctrinating others. The message that is usually spread among the students is that one should be thankful and grateful to be given a place in the university and therefore should not question certain things, such as how the university is administered, and you should keep quiet even though something which is not to your liking happens. All this keeping quiet and low profile is for your own good.
I agree to that statement at times, but not always, especially when situations of injustice occur; at that point, it is not only your responsibility to voice out but the responsibility towards justice demands you to do so. A personal experience I once faced was when one particularly nice senior scolded me with the fact that our tuition fees are 90% subsided by the government, and that free education is not necessary and we should be grateful for that the help we’ve received. With all due respect to that senior of mine (who so happens to be a nice guy and takes me out to “makan” at times), I can’t really blame him as he comes from a generation of law students so were so properly indoctrinated by the university that they are eternally grateful for everything the university and the government gives to them, and therefore they feel that they should keep their mouths shut and accept everything without further question.
“Great teachers do not just teach their students to survive in society but to also teach them to change society if it is not right”. Sadly, we have an education system which emphasises memorising rather than understanding and thinking, thus restricting one’s ability to think creatively and critically. Students are now reduced to being mere followers of authority whose power must not be questioned, or there will be severe implications on those who do.
A culture of fear also exists among students where they become subdued by materialism and increasingly afraid to lose what they have, causing them to play safe in everything they do. No one wants to play the role of a hero because it’s risky. Imagine a student activist giving a public speech at a political rally who finds himself suspended, or a student writing to the newspaper commenting on various issues regarding his university who gets a show cause letter. These are a couple of examples of possibilities of what might happen to a person who tries to be brave. Many are not aware that the recent UKM 4 case or Hilman’s case, which had rendered section 15 of the UUCA unconstitutional, later saw the Act being amended in Parliament so that students can once again participate in politics as well as support academic freedom. To be fair, we now see more and more students coming to the forefront to instigate change in the political, social, and economic aspects of our country. Despite all that, many still feel fear expressing themselves in a manner “uninfluenced by fear or favour”. Eliminating fear is not easy at first, but once you do, you will feel freer than you ever had been.
My message to all the mahasiswa is that it’s time to stand up and fight for change. Reclaim what was taken away from you and start to ask yourself what you can do in order to make change happen.
I always say to myself, “They can take away my place in the university but they cannot take away my passion to acquire knowledge. They can take away my degree but not the experience and knowledge I’ve acquired. They can take away my legal profession license but they cannot take away my skill in advocacy. And they can take away my life but they cannot take away my spirit.”
Featured image sourced from MalaysiaKini