Thursday 29 December 2011

Battle to light political fire in campuses

Microphone in hand, college student Muhammad Nasrul Alam rails against political restrictions on Malaysian campuses as well as bread-and-butter concerns like his university’s unstable Wi-Fi network.

NONEBut he faces a tough crowd: fellow students who are just waiting for a bus on the Universiti Malaya campus and who show a lack of interest in politics - something that Malaysian student leaders hope to change.

Those hopes have soared since Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak vowed in November to end a ban dating from the 1970s on college students joining or supporting political parties, the latest in a series of pledges to reform oppressive laws.

The ban has stunted student activism on campuses like Universiti Malaya - the top university in this multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority country.

But with Najib expected to call pivotal elections in 2012, the political attitudes of Malaysian students like Nasrul, 22, loom larger than they have in decades.

“It’s important for me now that students can participate in politics, whether in the government or in the opposition,” Nasrul told AFP after his appearance at a tightly controlled “speakers corner” on the campus near the capital Kuala Lumpur.

NONEMalaysia, a country of 28 million people, has about 12 million registered voters. But it also has at least 2.5 million young people who have reached voting age since 2008, when the opposition made historic parliamentary gains.

The enlarged youth vote is viewed as crucial in upcoming polls. Najib’s student pledge was aimed at wooing young voters to prevent a further setback that could threaten the five-decade rule of his Umno.

It is a heady time for university students.

In October, a court ruled the politics ban unconstitutional, siding with four students accused of supporting the opposition in local polls.

In July, throngs of students defied threats of disciplinary action by their colleges to join thousands of people at a rally for electoral reform in the capital that was broken up by police, who arrested 1,600 people.

NONEMany Malaysians are fed up with corruption, tensions among its many races and a perceived sense of drift under Najib's ethnic-Malay party and want change, said Ahmad Syukri Abdul Razab (left).

“That is also the main objective of the student movement. For 40 years we have fought for the abolition of (the student politics ban),” said Ahmad Syukri, who heads the umbrella student organisation Student Solidarity Malaysia (SMM).

But doubts linger over how much freedom students will be allowed - or how much they even want.

Varsities once politically active

Malaysian universities were once politically active. Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and now opposition leader, rose to prominence as an Islamic student agitator at Universiti Malaya in the 1970s.

But they have been quiet since, in contrast to political ferment on campuses in neighbouring Thailand, Indonesia, and even China in recent decades.

On Universiti Malaya’s leafy campus, a group of students - some in traditional Malay and Islamic dress - expressed little interest in politics as they ate curry lunches under a hot sun.

“Our job at the university is to study, not to get involved in politics and other things,” said an economics student who gave only her first name, Nabila.

Much of the blame for the apathy is pinned on the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which was amended in 1975 - after student protests the previous year - to include expulsions for students involved in politics.

NONE“The UUCA is like a ghost to the students. It scares them,” said Ahmad Syazwan Muhammad Hasan (right), of the Islamic student organisation Gamis.

But student groups are getting bolder. In November, leading organisations demanded the right to publish independent student newspapers and called for academic freedom for lecturers.

Student groups have organised increasing numbers of discussions and even recent demonstrations. Some have been broken up by police.

“The student movement must educate Malaysians to let them know it is not a crime to change the government. It is not a sin,” Ahmad Syukri said.

Critics of Malaysian higher education say the country’s authoritarian history has discouraged free thinking by students and lecturers, threatening national competitiveness.

“Now everything is spoon-fed,” Muhammad Sha’ani Abdullah, a member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, told AFP.

Factor in ‘brain drain’

The situation is often cited as a factor in a “brain drain” abroad of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers, often ethnic Chinese Malaysians, that the government is seeking to reverse.

Meanwhile, Najib has recently courted youth voters, attending a rock concert and watching an English Premier League match on television with football fans.

student handing memo to umno on academic freedom crowdHe has promised to lift the politics ban, expected to happen sometime in 2012, but added in November that political activities would remain banned on campuses under an amended UUCA, raising fears the pledge was an election ploy.

Those fears gained weight when Najib, who in September pledged greater civil liberties, suddenly introduced a new law in November banning street protests. Parliament has passed the law.

But student activists plan to fight on.

Through his tinny portable speaker, Nasrul urged his indifferent listeners to tune in to the political currents and rise up for their rights.

“I ask all undergraduates to better understand all the issues affecting UUCA so that we can push for changes and amendments of the law and I urge you all to give your full efforts to this!”

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