By Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan
This will be my final note on Malaysian student activism. I have ceased to be a student a couple of months ago and would now be moving forward onto bigger, more complex topics. Thank you for sticking by me for so long and, hopefully, adult Arveent can entertain you just as much as student Arveent.
About a week ago I was heartened to see our Youth and Sports Minister, YB Syed Saddiq, commenting on the independence of Malaysian students overseas, particularly when it came to presenting their honest observations and political opinions. The YB emphasized on how important it was to respect the independence of thought for these students, highlighting how certain clauses in JPA and Mara scholarship contracts unfairly restrict the freedom of speech of scholars, directly disrupting open and honest discourse on multiple topics. Moreover, YB Saddiq also emphasized the need to have an international network of students to collaborate and stand in solidarity with one another when it came to highlighting issues to give real strength to activism. Truly these are wonderful times to live in and I am deeply thankful.
However, as there are always howevers in these times, what bothers me is the continuing dependence of students on those in power to initiate this type of thought. It is no secret that movements that pushed for more independent student activism, especially when they had elements of politics, have been around for quite a while now. Yet each time it comes up, a litany of brickbats and cleverly constructed arguments are put forth against it, with supposed student leaders shying away to appease their corporate donors. Worse are those who ignore this type of activism completely, relying on the argument that a majority of students do not care about it in the first place, as if discourse and fighting for basic rights have to be subject to the wishes of the majority.
I attended the UKEC Student Activism Lecture and Strategic Meeting not too long ago. With famous activist Fahmi Reza and founder of Can Law Jo Fan, the lecture was quite eye-opening, covering 60’s era student activism in Malaysia and that from the 60’s t the 80’s in the United Kingdom. As a former student, I really had no business going but, as student activism was still close to my heart, I thought I would attend in a small mentor-like role to share my experience and thoughts so that the new batch of student leaders would have the tools necessary to continue the work my generation had done. Yet when I got there, the turnout broke my heart. Not much more than a couple handfuls of attendees were present, and not all of them were Supreme Councillors (Presidents and Vice Presidents of Malaysian student societies in the UK who have the right to vote in UKEC elections and motions). When even these decision makers are lackadaisical on topics imperative to strengthening the voice of students, where exactly are we in terms of activism?
What I fear is that we revert to the same problem of depending on other people to solve our problems for us. Oh, we can’t speak freely due to pressure from the government? Let’s keep quiet then and, hopefully with the grace of god we will be liberated by someone. Oh, our corporate sponsors are threatening to pull out if we become politically critical? Guess we have to shut up now because contracts are obviously non-negotiable. Besides, they are doing us a favour by giving us money, why rock the boat?
It’s a tiring slog through treacle to talk to these supposed student leaders at times. The concept of students having an independent voice is relegated to a distant dream for idealists and supposed paragmatists take over to protect whatever else activities are done by student organisations. This is not to say these other activities are useless or unimportant, simply that if they were the only ones done or supported by student organisations, it is an absolute waste of the consolidation of disparate students created by the very existence of these organisations and, even more, the consolidation of these organisations themselves under an umbrella body.
19000 Malaysian students were supposedly studying in the United Kingdom. That’s a huge block of potential voters and a significant political pressure tool. So, when it was clear that the then administration were oppressive of free speech, going so far as to issue veiled threats and sending representatives from the Special Branch and the Malaysian External Intelligence Organisation (MEIO) to monitor student meetings, what did the student leaders do? Remain quiet.
When my friends and I pointed this out to student leaders, we suggested creating a network between different Malaysian student societies, each a signatory of a declaration that would strive to protect the freedom of speech, assembly and association of Malaysian students in the UK. With this network, Malaysian students would have been more likely to come out and express their honest views on the state of the nation. In fact, the bigger problem we tried to solve was the fear of students to engage in activities revolving around important social issues such as conversations on Bumiputera rights or LGBTQ issues. We even touched upon the problematic nature of JPA and MARA scholarship contracts as Saddiq had done, albeit a year and a half earlier. What response did we receive? Lukewarm at best.
Yet now, when a minister comes and says the same thing, everybody is on board. What a boring life student leaders live when they have to depend upon politicians to do their work for them. How long will this mentality last, I wonder? What would happen if the Executive decides to turn against the independent student voice? When student leaders are still deriving their agency from the government, what has changed?
These questions I do not ask due to malice, ignorance or frustration, rather I am deeply concerned that even after the change in government and the minister’s express support, organisations like UKEC continue to sing the same tune of not wanting to seem partisan or not wanting to express an unfavourable position even when it comes to defending human rights. This is silly. Just because one defends another’s rights to speech doesn’t mean one supports the views of another. Especially when we take into consideration the position of these organisations and what they can potentially be.
Jo Fan and Fahmi Reza shared how two organisations operated to solidly stand by the voice of students in the past, namely Federation of UK & Eire Malaysian and Singaporean Students Organizations (FUEMSSO) and the University of Malaya Student’s Union (UMSU) respectively. They were actively participating in the administration of the country and were vocal in standing up for the voice of students. UMSU went so far to even write a student’s manifesto for the 1969 Malaysian General Elections and drove around Malaysia in a van to hold rallies promoting their ideals. In fact a majority of the candidates they endorsed due to them declaring support for the students manifesto won seats in their respective constituencies, showing how much influence the University of Malaya students had over the masses.
Our history is filled with strong, independent students who demanded and obtained respect for their views. Even after the advent of the Universities and University Colleges Act of 1971, strong student activists remained with their protests and, as Fahmi Reza puts it, penghasutan (incitement). The unfortunate change was to the support for these activists. Truly, student activists have always been in the minority. But in the past they were able to rely upon the solidarity of students behind them. UMSU was able to call a protest and thousands of students within the University of Malaya would turn up. FUEMSSO could draw up a list of demands to the government knowing the contingent of Malaysian and Singaporean students would back them when push comes to shove.
Which is why I am concerned with this new breed of suit-and-tie, behind-closed-doors, cosying-up-to-the-powers-that-be type of activism. They call it pragmatic but end up being dependent upon the wishes of corporate donors or government officials. Now Syed Saddiq is supportive of an independent student voice, so we can move forward with establishing the necessary networks to do so. Kelab Bunga Raya, the supposed intellectual youth of Parti Peribumi Bersatu Malaysia, is moving forward with injecting intellectualism within student activism particularly in the UK. Yet we can see how much political patronage is still important in these movements. If these support systems are gone one day or they push for changes that oppress students instead, would other organisations be ready to take up the fight against them? With what I saw on the Strategic Meeting, sitting in a circle with about 5 Supreme Councillors, with UKEC still hiding behind the flawed understanding of neutrality, sadly I am not encouraged.
This article was originally published in CEKU.org