by Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan
Just last Sunday, a discussion was had to make sense of the results of the 14th General Elections of Malaysia in Manchester. This event was a joint effort between the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC) and the Malaysian Students’ Society of Manchester (MSSM). While being held only a few days before the commencement of the final examination period of the University of Manchester, the event saw the participation of many students from a variety of backgrounds convening to understand the state of the nation as it stands. What is more gratifying is that representatives from many different Malaysian students’ societies in Manchester were present, even Kelab UMNO Salford dan Manchester (KUSMA), and joined in the discussion. I was there as well, and presented what I thought to be the most relevant step for us here in the UK which would further strengthen our nation’s future aspirations. The revival of the Students’ Declaration.
Before we move further, let me explain a little history on the Students’ Declaration. During the third year of my degree, I decided to moot for a common understanding of the limits of freedom of speech to be created through a consensus of Malaysian student leaders in the UK. This idea was supported in the Ordinary General Meeting of UKEC in February 2017. A little later, my compatriot Goh Cia Yee joined in the fray and we shifted the focus from being a set of guidelines for allowable speech to a more comprehensive declaration of students’ rights to freedom of speech. Another mandate followed in the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit (MSLS) supporting a motion for students to come together as a united force to advocate for our own rights and to protect one another.
Following this, a proper declaration was drafted using a committee of student leaders in the UK. Several rounds of revisions were made and presented to the Supreme Council of UKEC which comprised of the representatives of Malaysian student societies in the UK. The discussion held there was, unfortunately, mired by misunderstandings which caused the council to delay voting on the declaration’s implementation by UKEC. Following this, our friends at the United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian Law Students’ Union (KPUM) commissioned a study on the students’ perception of freedom of speech and what can be done to better it. This was presented in the UKEC Ordinary General Meeting of 2018 but the Supreme Council unfortunately decided not to make UKEC take action on the recommendations of the study.
The Environment Has Shifted
As it stands now, the declaration is dormant, but it must be said that, as someone who was heavily involved with its inception, the main opposition to the idea of student societies coming together to support and protect the rights of their members, working with each other through camaraderie akin to independent student unions, was the notion that the government bodies involved with overseeing students will act against students’ interests to nullify these efforts. Many times, the fear that scholarships from JPA and MARA would be retracted due to disagreements of what constitutes as free speech was brought up.
Student leaders were also hesitant that any efforts to become independent from the authorities would strain relations between them and UKEC. The role of civil society in decision-making had been so undermined that students automatically feared not toeing the line, even if the declaration did not call for illegal acts, just those that would lawfully strengthen the students’ voice. When even the making of statements and promotion of constitutional rights is taken to be controversial, what kind of democracy were we living under?
Now that we have a change of government, with a focus on reforming institutions, this mentality must be removed entirely. An independent movement of students is so important in these times when the youth have to be more involved with the running of our country such that outdated ideas are replaced with better, more progressive ones. In fact, this was the cornerstone to the previous regime’s TN50 policy that seeked to create a strong reserve of human capital that may ensure the leadership of Malaysia will remain strong in the future. The current regime also put a lot of emphasis of youth involvement in politics, with a large number young people running for seats in the parliament and state legislatures. Moreover, during the election we saw huge efforts on the part of young people to ensure their narrative doesn’t get ignored. From my petition to Nik Azmi’s efforts to bring back postal votes from the UK in time to be counted to Pulang Mengundi, nowhere had we seen this level of youth involvement with an election in recent times.
Judging from how students in the UK discussed matters relating to intellectualism in the past few years, especially within the Independent School of Thinkers in Manchester and UKEC’s Catalyst office, together with heated discussions within the presentation of the declaration itself, the fact is students here are ready to take on the responsibility of discussing matters relating to our society in a more thorough manner. Everything from Islam’s role in Malaysia to the relevance of socialist policies should be fair game for intellectual discourse amongst students here. More than this, open commentary should also be allowed such that direct feedback can be given to the authorities on what students believe should be done to properly represent their voice.
The vision of a better Malaysia can only be achieved through comprehensive participation of common Malaysians with the policies that make up the governance of Malaysia. To make sure these reflect the opinions and sensitivities of Malaysians as truly as possible, political pressure from civil society must be destigmatised and made the norm. To me, as students so privileged to be exposed to life in another country and its wealth of ideas, we are burdened with the responsibility of reviewing the direction of our nation to serve its people as well as possible. Since this is only properly done with a truly free environment where ideas may be openly shared and debated upon, the independent protection of students’ rights by students themselves should exist.
The Students’ Declaration calls for just that, for student leaders in the UK to convene and not only come up with proper guidelines for speech that are flexible enough to be as inclusive as possible through dialogues with the authorities but also be steadfast in defending them and their members’ rights to change them whenever necessary. In today’s time when the checks and balances to the government are weakened, we should move on from thinking of them specifically in terms of political parties, rather thinking of ourselves as agents that should ensure the accountability of the government now and for years to come.
This is not an alien concept. It can be seen in the UK’s National Union of Students and in Malaysia before the UUCA was established. We have been through decades of being undermined by those in power such that feudalism and defeatism has crept into what is supposed to be an open democracy. The colonisation of thought that was dealt must be broken by empowering students to share their ideas without fear of being reprimanded or punished unduly. JPA and MARA scholars should not be muzzled by vague restrictive provisions in their contracts. Laws such as the Sedition Act and the National Security Act should not have sections that allow the voice of Malaysians to be restricted.
However, this is not enough. The Malaysian intellectual’s renaissance is nigh, we should support it by ensuring those that currently perceive their rights are so limited that they would be given the space necessary to flourish. Here’s to the revival of the Students’ Declaration, the first step in the strengthening of not only our institutions, but society’s resolve to be more open, inclusive and mature.