The declaration has gone through many changes in the past week. There is a second draft now that has not been officially released, but we have a sneak peek for you. But more importantly, it was presented to the Supreme Council of the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC) at their Annual General Meeting over the weekend in two separate sessions. One was a focus group that talked about the Declaration in detail. Only a few Supreme Councillors (SCs) attended this focus group as there were two others that were held consecutively. In any case, the Declaration was presented and discussed at length and many perspectives were considered.
After this, a public motion was proposed by myself and Cia Yee where it was asked of the SCs to vote on whether UKEC’s executive council, which is the executive arm of the SC, to facilitate the creation of the declaration and be responsible for the implementation of its mechanisms. For this, it was voted to postpone the voting on the motion until UKEC’s Ordinary General Meeting sometime either in March or April. It was an eventful Sunday where there were a lot of concerns that were due to either misunderstanding the declaration due to a captive mentality inherent in Malaysians due to the structure of our society or simply emotional overthinking due to the novelty of the declaration in the first place. This article would serve to answer some of the more pressing questions that rose from the discussions and debates.
The Focus Group and The Motion Debate Discussed Separate Topics
Firstly let’s take a step back and look at how the day was set out. The focus group and the motion debate were two separate sessions, with two separate topics discussed. The focus group focused on the declaration itself, how it came to be, the role of the drafting community, what it means and what it allows for. The motion debate asked only for permission to utilise UKEC’s executive council and their resources to make better drafts of the declaration. One such resource would be the RCs who could have helped with the outreach of the declaration to as many Malaysian students as possible in their respective regions. Moreover, a more personal approach with the SCs in that region could lead to better rates of feedback as well due to constancy in pushing for it.
In reality those who were asked to vote for the motion were only needed to answer two fundamental questions. One, could such a document as the declaration be a positive force, maybe not with the current wording but with a little help to iron out the kinks from a variety of SCs? Two, does it make sense to mandate UKEC’s executive arm to help create such a document and sustain it in the future after its creation? We shall see that these questions were either answered in the proceedings of the AGM or were simply the next logical step in the process.
But let us go even slower. It was stated clearly both in the focus group and the motion debate that the declaration was a working document. This means that the wording of the declaration itself was up to changes. This was not the original plan, but it was decided to be so as to make the process of writing the declaration more transparent and inclusive of as many SCs as possible. The projected next step was to reach out to individual MSoc to consult what they want in such a document and their reservations. This would then lead to amendments such that most SCs are comfortable enough to sign on as signatories. Hence, any weakness in the current iteration of the declaration can be worked on by the SCs. We want this document to be as thoroughly representative as possible, we want a document that we, Malaysian students in the UK, create together. But as was evident on Sunday, this caused some disagreements.
Guidelines Without The Declaration Might Be Counter-Productive
In discussing the declaration, an earlier idea of mine was brought up and some SCs held it as a better idea. All throughout the third year of my undergraduate studies, I had mooted for the creation of guidelines of what the allowable topics to be discussed, events to be held and activities to be undertaken by students would be. This was to lessen the culture of fear that exists amongst students here that prevents them from engaging with social issues imperative for them to consider in the pursuit of a more informed class of young people. In fact, back in February, a motion asking specifically for this, amongst other recommendations, was passed in the UKEC OGM. The declaration emerged from the idea of a set of guidelines quite organically and, in my opinion, is a far more important document overall.
To understand this, we must first understand two possibilities. One, where a set of guidelines are created and another, where the declaration is created. The set of guidelines would be produced consensually amongst the SCs with guidance from government officials. This would be due to the guidelines basically limiting the carte blanche power given to government officials to determine what are permissible actions for students. These guidelines would be updated periodically by the SCs, hopefully becoming more accommodating as time goes on. This would be a good development.
However, in the second scenario, the declaration is created, firstly consensually amongst the SCs to gauge what students really desire when it comes to the protection of their fundamental rights. Then, this document will get passed on to the government officials for their approval. At this step, these officials may decline to sign on as signatories, however the consolidation of student voices backing the document will incentivise negotiations with the signatories of the document for more agreeable terms. In fact, the aforementioned guidelines may just be formed from the push-and-pull factor created by the declaration.
Like what was mentioned in the focus group, in engineering what is desirable is a balance of forces. We saw an unbalance on the side of government officials and wanted to rectify it by the empowerment of students from educating them on their rights. In this regard, trade-offs can only be properly factored in if there is enough pressure from both sides. Right now, government officials hold all the cards, with no incentive to give any of them up while students hold very little. The declaration seeks to give enough power to students such that whatever actions are taken in the future are more favourable for the students rather than not.
In other words, a truer sense of accountability can be created through the declaration rather than just guidelines. Alone, the guidelines lack a basis on students’ rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association. This could lead to them being more restrictive than not, are more top-down than bottom-up (which might lead to further unpleasantness for students and apathy due to a lesser inclusive process) and lesser accountability for the signatories as their members would have no further basis to demand for greater degrees of freedom in the future.
The declaration solves all of this from its very nature. Yes, it might lack proper guidelines, per se, but it constructs a framework that reaffirms the fundamental rights of students and legitimises their importance to be preserved. It forms a basis for any Malaysian student in the UK to ask for their representatives to uphold their rights whenever progressive steps are to be taken. It can catalyse more intellectual discourse, better events focusing on real issues in Malaysia and more constructive recommendations from UK students. Unshackled by the fear that anything they say or do could be thought to be insulting to the country, open and honest discussion can foster amongst Malaysian students leading to better understanding between them and a more unified society overall.
The Government Will Scrutinise More, Not Restrict More, With The Declaration
With this said, there are still some points to consider. There were some serious misconceptions that arose on Sunday that cannot be ignored. One primarily concerned the possibility of government officials like JPA and MARA increasing restrictions and scrutiny with the very existence of the Declaration. It is claimed that at present, government bodies are being liberal with their restrictive powers, tending not to act on individuals who do seemingly push the boundaries of free speech. If I may paraphrase Prof. Zainal Sanusi who gave an insight upon serious action taken by these bodies, only one case in 5 years stands as a complete removal of scholarship and even then it was due to open hostility towards the government. It was even said that the president of Malaysian Progressives United Kingdom (MPUK), an organisation that invites a number of opposition politicians for their events, is a government scholar and no action has been taken against them.
This liberalism might be true, in some sense. The scarcity of cases of conflict proves that. But the overall environment created by the possibility of repercussions falling on any action taken by a student that is interpreted by government officials as insulting the country or endangering the safety of the Federation is unhealthy. Right now, any government scholar who tries to do anything resembling old-school activism, fighting for equality or racial unity for example, even if it is through peaceful means such as through art in MNights or mooting for greater freedom of speech through Malaysian Societies, does it at his own risk. I should know.
To a large degree, this culture of fear turns a lot of people off from even caring about social issues. We wonder why people are looking to leave Malaysia the first chance they get, this is why. They can’t relate to it, nor can they relate to its people. They see depictions of its culture in two dimensions, fabricated out of clothing, food, dancing etc, but do they relate to what we as Malaysians believe in? Or do we let misconceptions about each other continue to divide us because if we question them we might get chastised, harassed or even taken action upon by government officials?
Again, it is not enough that historically nothing like this has been enforced, the culture of fear remains due to the possibility of unfettered enforcement. So what do we, the conscious students, have to defend ourselves? What do the unwoke masses have to inspire them to think about their surroundings a little more? It’s not like they don’t care, I’ve talked many who open up and try to understand social issues in a deeper context when approached personally. But the conversations always end up the same way. Dejection that they can’t do anything about it other than discuss it behind closed doors. And those remaining who don’t care? Why would they when they’ve been raised in an environment where questioning and speaking out have been repressed? If we are being honest, the culture of fear is an inheritance from back home. So what do we do?
It makes very little sense if the creation of the declaration results in a tightening of these liberal tendencies. If whatever that is being done now does not constitute a large enough threat to national security for action to be taken, that same activity should not elicit any more action with the declaration around.
Now, will it lead to more scrutiny from government officials? Will they be more wary and cognizant of student activities, at least for a little while? Absolutely. It is completely understandable that the creation of the declaration is deeply scrutinised by government officials. When embarking on a project as novel as the declaration, it is normal to get the government, who have a very real public security concern to handle in today’s seamless world where the internet can influence public perception so quickly, to be more interested in student activism going forward. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.
If we think about working relationships between two entities, we have to understand that there must be two spheres interest working with each other for a common goal. The government’s interest is to the nation and student organisations’ interest should be to the students themselves. Much like trade unions, student organisations should be able to put students’ interest first such that proper pressure can be put forth on the government to take them seriously. It is not about going against the government or becoming partisan, as many have misconstrued, it is about getting the attention of busy government officials to get down and speak to you like equals. That can only happen if we come together for a common goal, as set out by the declaration.
If We Want This Done Right, Let’s Do It Together, For Ourselves, By Ourselves
Another concern was whether the declaration would be effective at all. The recommendations laid out in it list emergency meetings and joint public statements. These are understood to be expressions of solidarity. One might feel as if these are self-serving and accomplish very little but their existence serve to uphold and project the consolidated voice of students. 18,500 students coming together to say one thing garners a lot of gravitas. When public statements are given out by this group, the message is effectively sent. If a student knows he is not alone in defending himself for what he feels is the right thing to do, with the caveat that it is lawful, that camaraderie can open his mind and also open doors to bettering society overall.
To a degree, the abstract notion of this sentiment was appreciated by the SCs on Sunday. They were moved enough to recognise the need to go back and really have a deep think about it while consulting their members’ opinions. Congratulations are in order as these are quite dense topics to deal with and slippery slopes reverting to scarier and scarier outcomes were put forth on Sunday. The SCs will now have to be contacted one-by-one for a more proactive approach from all of them to actually contribute to this document.
One step that is quite interesting to consider was brought up by Faizul Zuraimi, Chairperson of UKEC, where an infographic can be created listing the pros and cons of the declaration and what the hidden impacts would be. I am looking forward to working with UKEC on that very soon.
To cut a long story short, yes the declaration is imperfect, yes it might seem controversial at the moment and maybe its not helped by its wording. But the spirit of the declaration, the need and responsibility to defend students’ rights is imperative. We all understand this. This is a novel platform to better ourselves. If it is flawed help us fix it.
Why do we have to give up on a good idea because it is not done well now? Why can’t we band together to make it better for ourselves, by ourselves? I call upon the SCs to consider this. If you believe in the spirit of the declaration, I implore you to contribute to it. If there are clauses that could be better worded, like instead of talking about the legality of clauses in government scholarship contracts, we can talk about the extent of their definition or execution, let it be known and we can work on that.
This is precisely the point, the declaration is malleable. It is open to the SCs to come together and make it. Nobody is making a whole document then asking SCs to just sign, we need the declaration to come organically from the students or else all of this means nothing. This is the purest expression of a bottom-up approach, something that has never been done before, born from the pure intention to help the culture within society. Let us help to contribute to a better future.