The recent episode involving Universiti Malaya (UM) authorities shutting down the PA system to prevent Wong Yan Ke from speaking at a student forum, highlights Malaysia’s public universities still lack freedom of speech.
Wong Yan Ke, a human rights activist who became noteworthy after his protest against the former UM Vice Chancellor at his convocation, was invited to speak at a forum on freedom of expression, among students of higher education institutions.
This has been an issue within Malaysian public universities ever since the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) was amended by Mahathir Mohamed in 1975 to prevent the involvement of students in politics and unions.
The UUCA amendments in 1975 brought university thought and expression under establishment control.
Long gone are the fiery student activism of the 1950s during colonial rule, where students expressed anti-colonial narratives in the fight for Merdeka. The student movement in the 1960s voiced out without fear or favour, and was considered a very influential force in framing public opinion. Student leaders like Anwar Ibrahim, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Syed Husin Ali, and Edmund Terence Gomez all emerged during this period.
However, even though these aspects of the Act were repealed by when Pakatan Harapan came to power in 2018, the Act is still in existence, where student democracy is still restricted on campuses around the country. Universiti Malaya management has continued to hinder freedom of speech on campus.
This is in stark contrast to 18 year olds now able to vote in elections. Students can vote but are restricted from exercising free speech on university campuses, which should be extolling the spirit of free speech.
Malaysian public universities have been bastions of establishment conservatism under both BN and PH governments. The BN education ministers have always tended to select UMNO establishment supporters as vice chancellors, while Maszlee Malik, a rogue PH minister appointed vice chancellors who were strongly grounded in Islam.
Hence, free speech has not been a top agenda item for university management, especially when its critical of the government. Further, university management has always acted to suppress criticisms of themselves, including corruption.
Malaysian public universities have also taken a hard line towards their academics, as well as students. Academics are not free to express views publicly that may be deemed to be critical of government and university policies.
Universities usually resort to intimidation of students, where students or staff may be called up for meetings with senior university management. The Special Branch is also active on campuses, keeping close watch on people of interest, who may potentially voice alternative views to the establishment narratives.
This has become potentially dangerous when authorities move in on students who protest legitimate public issues, such as rising prices of necessities and food security, as occurred in the student Turun protesters, last July.
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