Finding Student Voices in ‘Malaysia Baharu’

Despite the euphoric atmosphere that comes with Pakatan Harapan’s win in the last 14th General Election, students in across universities in Malaysia are still struggling to find their voices. Pakatan Harapan’s victory has given students hopes that things are going to change from the past, that structural changes will be put in place to ensure for students have more says, and be allowed to express themselves freely. However, almost half a year has passed and there is not much change that has happened. The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU) is still there, student’s voices are still very much being ignored and there are still as much as red-tapes and bureaucracies for organizing student activities as in the past. So what actually has changed?

The Fate of Students’ Movements

Repressive acts towards student movements are not new in Malaysia. According to a report done by Fortify Rights, Malaysian authorities and public universities have worked together to restrict the fundamental rights of university students. The previous Barisan Nasional Government has infamously restricted students from engaging in political discourse and activities, restricting their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. This is done under the legal framework of Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU). AUKU was initially passed by the Malaysian parliament mainly in response to increase of student activism and student-led protests on university campuses during the late 1960s. The Act was later amended for several times; in 1975, 2009, and 2012. The disciplinary actions taken by University of Malaya to its students for holding placards at a “1MDB Townhall” event and the disciplinary proceedings taken against five students for organizing a rally, are just a few examples of how the Malaysian government and campus administration has restricted students’s movement in Malaysia in the previous administration.

During the election campaign before the 14th General Election, Pakatan Harapan issued a manifesto entitled, “Buku Harapan: Rebuilding Nation, Fulfilling Hopes,” in which contains a commitment to abolish or at least amend AUKU should they win the election. Now that they win the election and has formed a new government, the people, especially students, are anticipating for structural changes to be put in place so that students can express themselves fully. In supporting this notion, the Malaysian Academic Movement (GERAK) in May wrote that the new Education Minister should put efforts to make universities more “vibrant, excellent and progressives” and has called for the repeal of AUKU as Pakatan Harapan coalition promised.

Slow Progress & Uncertainty

While people have been euphoric to the newfound freedom post Pakatan Harapan’s win, many has just started to realize that progress has been slow. Deputy education minister Teo Nie Ching has said that AUKU will only be repealed within five years, as more time is needed to study and further discuss with relevant agencies. However, it is reported that the review committee does not include student groups representatives as its stakeholders.

On the another side, students and activists are getting more impatient of the progress. Adam Adli has reportedly said that “Why do we need to study things that has been studied and debated before, like we did not know anything all this while”. In a recent news report, student activist Anis Syafiqah also commented that students should be given full freedom, and not a half-full freedom. Further, as the public has turned into a realization that Pakatan Harapan would not be able to exactly fulfil all their promises, students and the public are getting more agitated on whether the new government would eventually fulfil their promise to repeal AUKU and give more voices and spaces to students and student movements.

Not Much Difference

As a student in a public university myself, I have yet to see much differences on how universities treat their students and how much freedom has been given to them in allowing them to express their voices out. No structural changes has been put to engage students in a more meaningful way in governance and campus management, besides the fact that no disciplinary actions have been taken to any student activist since the formation of the new government. What can be seen is changing is merely how the university has changed the political figures they invite and focus on, from the Barisan Nasional politicians to Pakatan Harapan; such as having Tun Dr Mahathir’s Exhibition in the campus library, or inviting Pakatan Harapan politicians as guest lecturers.

The appointment of education minister Dr Mazlee Malik as President of the International Islamic University is also seen as contrary to the spirit of university autonomy that was promised by Pakatan Harapan. Despite the pressure he received from the public and student groups, Dr. Mazlee is unmoved by his decision to receive his appointment. While Dr Maszlee met with the student activists for a discussion on this issue, the latter described it as “disappointing and unfruitful” meeting. Just recently, students of University of Malaya were dissatisfied and outraged in how the university management increases the tuition fees without any notice, what more engaging the students to know about their feedbacks before implementing it. A petition bearing 8000 signatures were submitted but the campus management failed to give any response. With all these issues, only time will tell how much Pakatan Harapan is committed towards engaging students and hearing their voices in governing Malaysia Baharu.

Muhammad Fathi Rayyan studies International & Strategic Studies in University of Malaya. His field of interest lies mostly on ASEAN, especially on its socio-cultural dimension. He is also an enthusiast in issues pertaining youth activism, education, as well as society and religion.