Part I: The Story of Liberasi
Recently, I had read the note written by Shukri Ahmad Shahizam on a subject I, myself, planned to write on but was beat to. Now, on the same week that UKEC’s Ordinary General Meeting was concluded, it is time for me to weigh in on the issues of Malaysian student activism in the UK for the umpteenth time. But, let me start off with a little story, of my nook here in Liberasi.
The comments section of Shukri’s note as shared to the UKECommunity group had a couple of comments that painted Liberasi in a positive light. For this I am massively grateful. Truly, being a social commentator amongst the supposed cream of the crop of Malaysian youths is a lonely business, with very few people even reading my articles. The few likes, comments, the occasional share is extremely gratifying for a 4th Year Chemical Engineering student struggling to juggle it all. But the loneliness does get to me. The times I’ve cried bitter tears on the state of our nation is innumerable. The times I did not understand what it was I was doing wrong, if I was in the wrong in the first place, and why people who seem to understand were still so slow to act have given me migraines. I am no elected official, I have no claims to the title of student leader, yet those who do seemed to be so uncaring.
I have a lot of frustrations. I have channelled them into my work in Liberasi. 20 articles on issues as varied as I cared them to be, from criticisms on Pakatan Harapan to promoting the inclusion of gay rights in Malaysia, all hinging on logic and brave, yet nuanced argumentation. This is on top of our early work with the #followthewhisper campaign and the subsequent Students’ Declaration, both of which in collaboration with Cia Yee and the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Law Students (KPUM). I did all this mostly on my own. Imagine that, a 1-person working committee yet making up a significant portion of social commentary from Malaysian students in the UK. Pathetic.
That I have done this much should be a testament to how feasible it is for those with a larger presence and manpower. Imagine talks on freedom of speech, debates on the relevance of Bumiputra rights and criticism on identity politics in Malaysia, not as a niche area but as a norm. It is said that most students are not interested in these yet the fact remains that this is so due to the thick smog of fear enveloping society in Malaysia. Till today I get texts from my father cautioning me to be careful not to step on any toes, even when what I am saying relatively benign. This is the reality for young people, growing up in fear of even thinking about supposedly sensitive subjects. In this backdrop of nauseating restraint, how many amongst us would find the strength or stubbornness to break through and care about society in the deepest of manners? One cannot be so naive to attribute apathy to nature when systematic fear strips the urge to know away. Tak kenal maka tak cinta, nak kenal takut derita.
Liberasi fights for revisionism, the belief that even established norms should be rethought to ascertain whether the underlying assumptions therein still make sense in society today. This type of questioning is imperative for an intellectual society and one that is wrought in real peace, the kind of peace that comes with a depth of understanding our surroundings. Only when we understand the push and pull factors of everyone surrounding us can we truly build a nation worth living in. This effort needs to be within every individual, examining every facet of society, especially social issues for there is where the inherent contradictions within our assumptions arise. This needs an environment of free speech and openness to be possible. This is where Liberasi is.
Part II: Student Societies In General
Sadly, this is not the case for most Malaysian student organisations in the UK. They are apathetic and unmotivated to focus on creating the necessary open culture amongst Malaysian students. After a couple years of trying to communicate the importance of freedom of speech and getting them to accept the responsibility of defining its limits and to protect that right for the students they represent, this fact is largely evident. There are times, however, when this blanket statement is rendered untrue. When the Student’s Declaration was in its infancy, the drafting committee was made up of the leaders of some of these student organisations who worked to come up with a working document that strived to not only provide a basis of protecting students’ freedom of speech, but attempted to balance this with provisions against bullying and hurtful speech. This initial enthusiasm though quickly faded, when other Supreme Councillors harped on the effort filled with suspicion and scepticism.
This is to be celebrated. A healthy scepticism is exactly what the declaration intended to create. However, repeated assertions that the declaration was simply to bring together student societies to protect the freedom of speech of students and was broadly defined so that future steps such as guidelines to properly delineate the boundaries of speech independently from outside influences could take place were brushed aside by flights of fancies that jumped to confusing conclusions. Such assertions as the Malaysian authorities clamping down even further on freedom of speech, especially for students back home, and how we as students do not have the expertise to determine what is permitted to be talked about were thrown to an increasingly confused audience with little regard to whether they made sense.
Truly the essence of the declaration was not to overturn the decisions of Malaysian courts, one cannot disrespect the Judiciary in that manner, but to provide an avenue to comment on these decisions and beyond. Surely an independent student body has every right to do so? And if the authorities were to clamp down on freedom of speech, would that not be better in a world where there is a concerted effort to protect them? That debate during the AGM last year left me drained and confused. Why were these students, who had so much to say, so much to give, not responding favourably to a document that ensured their rights would be protected by themselves?
Student societies in the UK, I have asserted time and again, have lost their way when it comes to student activism. It is not peculiar though when we realise that those who lead these organisations come from the same smog-filled society that the rest of us do. But when it comes to accepting the responsibility of leading and representing a group of individuals, whatever that group may be, it is important to play that role well and as comprehensively as possible. Leaders should be proactive in looking at the issues faced by their people and work to resolve them, putting aside personal biases or fears. If these are known to affect your performance, resign. I say that with no malice, it is not fair to assume a role that you know you cannot play as well as you must. In this regard, it is a given that freedom of speech for Malaysian students should be paramount, unencumbered by outside forces to determine what is truly believed by everyone involved such that proper sharing of knowledge can be created leading to proper depth in understanding.
Yes the nature of this freedom is to be debated, discussed and not rigidly concluded. Yes, there is still work to be done as to how far we can go with regards to this freedom. But this can only be done through an open and honest discussion regarding it with fellow students. We have to cultivate an independence of student activism so that the ideas discussed and promoted are genuinely from the thought process of students and not simply to toe the line of any authority figure in fear of rebuke and official action. The independence of student activism, acting like civil societies, is important to balance the forces that govern society and public policy.
Part III: UKEC
So do I blame the variety of student societies in the UK for a lack of proactiveness? Yes, but more than them I blame UKEC. As an umbrella body of student societies, UKEC always seems to hide behind the fact that this excuses them from making statements and taking decisive action. While their inclusive nature is to be respected, there are times it seems the bureaucracy is used to evade difficult decisions. As an organisation committed to Nation Building, it is a given that freedom of speech should be protected. It is a given that this organisation should be independent to preserve not only its own integrity but also to ensure students have enough room to express themselves and grow internally as organically as possible. Time and again, UKEC has proven itself not to be independent.
This is evident whenever they talk about preserving the special relationship they have with the Malaysian High Commission. The extent of this relationship is unknown but the effect it has on the decision-making ability of UKEC is evident. UKEC tries to balance this with its responsibility to students but this is flawed simply because it takes away from independent representation of students. It should not be part of UKEC’s responsibility to introduce this balance; rather it should arise organically through the interplay between the interests of students and the authorities. By taking such a weak stance on student activism, UKEC strengthens the flawed notion that the independent student society is a model not to be followed. By opening themselves up to direct influence from the authorities, UKEC effectively silences all other student organisations who would want to take a stance but are unsure of whether they would be protected. UKEC, in inculcating this fear, fails to uphold the very notion of being an umbrella body for Malaysian students in the UK.
It is also a timid organisation. We can see this from the responses to the UCU strikes and the Anti Fake News act. Instead of issuing statements, UKEC turns to surveys to gauge students’ responses, showing how toothless they are. The UCU strikes have directly affected the studies of some Malaysian students, it should not take another survey on top of that to issue a statement of disapproval that this is left to continue. The Anti Fake News act might require some lateral thinking, but the very fact that it was so rushed without proper consultation first with the relevant stakeholders should be enough to condemn it. UKEC not understanding this really shows how they have misunderstood the spirit behind their existence. Surveys are important, but taking a stance should be done in congruence with it, to preserve an organisation’s principles.
Organisations exist based on principles. UKEC’s principles are based on camaraderie, working together and nation-building through the interplay of different students. They have different businesses within them, from career fairs to intellectual discussions, and at times these are used as reasons to not be so political. But these businesses act to benefit whom? The core consumer is the Malaysian student. Hence, instead of thinking to benefit the businesses, UKEC should think about benefitting the student. Yes, the UKEC-Graduan Career Fair is hugely successful, but does UKEC fare well in other areas? How many people care about PAN or MSLS? Instead of trying to keep these events afloat, a radical shift in UKEC’s approach, where it becomes more independent to facilitate discussions on difficult topics should be introduced. Then, we can finally have an MSLS where politicians are not called to act as crowd pullers yet left to debate insipidly, but actual academics can take part to add value to the discussions or students themselves can directly question authority figures.
For me, and my organisation, UKEC has failed, is failing, and will continue to fail on a fundamental level. Its toxic reliance on keeping everyone happy rather than preserving its principles trickles down to other student societies such that apathy and toothlessness sets in. When the Law Students Union is more vocal than an organisation literally meant to protect the interest of all students that is when we have to accept the death of student activism. There is no chance of revival, UKEC’s pharaohs have constructed pyramid-schemes too massive to ignore. What I hope would occur is that independent students, such as myself, can one day influence their Supreme Councillors to leave UKEC to wither away such that a new order of camaraderie, one wrought in an independent, open marketplace of ideas can emerge. There is no cause for sorrow, no need to heed its death throes. Every organisation has an expiration date. UKEC’s is fast approaching. It is better if we realise this sooner rather than later.
One point to end on is I am too tired and busy to entertain the dusty arguments put forth before. I don’t want to get into another Facebook war, I don’t want to meet in another Costa. The problems I have pointed out above are as true and real as they were two years ago. To the student leaders who might read this, I implore you would think deeply about your place and station, about your organisation and whether you could do more. To UKEC, I am sorry. I tried to help, I tried to bring you the support you needed to thrive as a bastion of student activism. But I’m tired of being questioned so suspiciously by your officers who are more interested in being fanciful than to actually listen. You know what your problem is. Become independent and proactive or the very notion of you helping to build a nation is a bald-faced lie. That is where I and Liberasi stand.