Whose interest does the UUCA serve?

By Jacqueline Ann Surin

AS an editor, I’ve sometimes had to remind journalists who merely copy and paste from a press release that they are paid to think, question, and make sense of the issues they are writing about. A journalist’s role is not to be a stenographer. It’s to be a public intellectual that interrogates the information in hand and helps connect the dots for readers.

I’ve been reminded about the roles individuals and institutions play in society because of the potential disciplinary action that Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) is about to mete out on four undergraduates. The students’ offence? They allegedly campaigned in the Hulu Selangor by-election.

Here then is a question I’d like to ask our government and UKM. I’d also like the same question asked of any other university that thinks it is right that UKM is doing what it is doing as provided for under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA). What role are universities meant to play? And by extension, what roles do our government and local university administrations expect university students and the university itself to play?

Centres of learning
I doubt that anyone would disagree that a university is a centre of learning. Historically, universities, which began in Europe, were communities of teachers and scholars. In a nutshell, the role of a university is to promote learning. And learning best occurs when thinking, querying and the testing of ideas takes place.

As pedantic as that sounds, I believe Malaysians need to revisit the question of what role universities are meant to play in light of the UKM issue. After all, UKM is not the first nor will it be the last Malaysian university which will invoke the UUCA in reining in students from the brink of thinking and participating in public and political life.

Indeed, when I was an undergraduate in Universiti Malaya 20 years ago, we experienced the same oppressive controls over thinking made possible by restrictive and ill-formed laws such as the UUCA. I remember how as orientation week helpers, a group of Christian seniors approached the student affairs department in 1991. We wanted to request for Christian freshies to have time off to attend church during the week-long orientation. After all, Muslim undergraduates were allowed time to pray five times a day. The department head’s response? “Who put you up to this? It must be external agents instigating you.”

I can’t remember if we were more flabbergasted or insulted. To be certain, that wasn’t the only instance that students in my graduating year experienced pressure from the university authorities to conform, follow the rules, and not question. In another instance, a faculty mate faced tremendous challenges when trying to get approval for a human rights exhibition on campus.

And so, nothing much has changed in the past 20 years. At least not in terms of the authorities’ ideas about how a university should be run and how they will, or rather will not, cultivate critical centres of learning.

What was the crime?
After all, how was it a crime or even offensive that the four final-year political science students from UKM were interested enough to go to the ground to understand the country’s politics and political process? How is it offensive for undergraduates, no matter their faith, to legitimately ask for time to pray during a university-organised week-long orientation programme? How is it wrong for students to be aware of violations and to want to raise consciousness about human rights among the student body?

It can only be offensive and criminal if university administrators don’t believe that university students should be thinking, enquiring and acting in tandem with their conscience as citizens.
To be certain, it’s not just university administrators such as UKM’s vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin whose positions need to be interrogated. Ultimately, the people most responsible for this state of affairs in universities are those in government who refuse to review and dismantle the UUCA. To have a sense of how anti-democratic and anti-thinking the UUCA is, consider this: If found guilty, the four students can either be expelled or suspended for exercising their democratic right to associate and express.

Who’s speaking up?
It is for that reason that both Pakatan Rakyat and MCA leaders have called on UKM to desist from taking any action. These parties, including Gerakan, have also called on the government to either review or completely dismantle the UUCA because they understand how detrimental the law is in encouraging young citizens to think and exercise their rights in a democracy.

Conversely, it was the Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin, from Umno, who warned university students that the UUCA would be used against them if they were in Hulu Selangor during the by-election campaign.

What I find really curious is this. How does the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government expect the nation to embark on creativity and innovation if university students are not allowed to think, engage and explore beyond their classrooms? How does the government expect the nation to achieve Vision 2020‘s goal of being a fully developed country in 10 years if university students are not allowed to mature in their thinking and perspectives? How can we even imagine that Malaysia will experience a brain gain, instead of the current brain drain, if universities cannot and will not create spaces for learning, independent thought and enquiry?

I think it’s timely to ask our Umno-led government what role they think universities are meant to play in the nation’s interest if not to cultivate thinking, learning, experimentation and questioning.

From the evidence, it is clear that the UUCA prevents universities in Malaysia from playing that role. Indeed, the UUCA was clearly formulated in the early 1970s by the same BN government as a way to curb student organisations that were vocal in holding government and power accountable.

How then can the UUCA be in the nation’s interest? And how can any government, politician, political party or university administrator, who supports the UUCA and its use, be acting in the nation’s interest? Indeed, it is obvious just who is sabotaging Malaysia’s potential and abilities to become a developed, mature and competitive nation.

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