A repressive law that forbids students from becoming members of political parties and restricts political activity in universities will be amended, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak announced last week. But rights groups said the government was adopting a 'carrot and stick' approach by tightening up in other areas related to public assembly.
"The government believes in the maturity and intelligence of our university students," Najib told the lower house of parliament, the Dewan Rakyat, on 24 November.
He said the controversial section 15 of the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU) relating to student activity would be changed to "respect the constitutional right of the undergrad(uate)s who have reached the legal age or age of majority."
The act would be amended to allow students over the age of 21 to join political parties, "but we will be strict in not allowing politics to enter campuses," he said.
The notorious section 15 of the 1971 act makes it an offence for students to express "support, sympathy or opposition" for a political party, whether Malaysian or foreign.
Syukri Abdul Razak, chairperson of Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM), which groups a number of student organisations, said that when section 15 of the act had been amended "students will have the opportunity to take part in political movements. This is a big change because without the amendment they cannot take part in political movements actively."
However, he said, it did not go far enough.
"We welcome the announcement that has been made by the prime minister but it is not the end of our fight. We will carry on till the entire AUKU is abolished, not just section 15. We have been fighting this for a long time, and there is no indication from the government that they are willing to change the entire act," he told University World News.
Government in a hurry
Government officials said the amendment would be tabled in parliament by March. But SMM's Razak said the government could amend the act as early as the end of this year.
"We think the change is just around the corner. The government is in a hurry to make this change as soon as possible because they are desperate to gain votes from young people in the national election early next year."
Deputy Higher Education Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said the Education Ministry and the Attorney-General's Chambers would meet to discuss the amendment, which he claimed would be "bigger and better" than 2009 amendments that many critics said did not go far enough in allowing students political rights.
The new amendment will mean "significant changes" to students' participation in politics, the deputy minister said.
But while students and rights groups have been calling for the law to be changed for many years, their victory was tempered by legislation banning street protests tabled in parliament on the same day. Abolishing a number of security laws was one of a raft of reforms to emergency laws announced by the prime minister in September.
The proposed new Peaceful Assembly Bill that will replace emergency internal security laws will prohibit street protests, and assemblies will not be permitted within 50 metres of prohibited areas such as hospitals, schools and places of worship. Anyone under the age of 21 will not be permitted to organise an assembly.
The Malaysian Bar Association said the Peaceful Assembly Bill in its current form is more repressive than existing laws and would need to be improved.
Government challenge to court ruling
The sense of victory by rights groups and students over changes to university laws was also mitigated by the government's decision to appeal against a landmark court ruling on 31 October related to the case of four students charged with illegally campaigning during a by-election in April last year.
The appeal court declared that the law restricting student politics was "unreasonable" and unconstitutional as it violated freedom of expression.
But Najib Razak told parliament on Thursday that "the government will file an appeal as the decision has far-reaching implications for the principles of law in the country".
Saifuddin Abdullah, the deputy minister, insisted there was no contradiction between the prime minister's announcement to amend the act and the move to appeal the court decision.
But students said it amounted to an important face-saver and legal issue for the government. "We believe they are making the appeal to [rescue] their image because whatever they have done in the past against students has been under that act. They have protected the act for a very long time, and suddenly this court has said this provision [section 15] is illegal," Razak said.
"We have urged the government to cancel their appeal but they will not easily retreat from this issue." If the appeal court's 31 October ruling is reversed, "it is possible that the government may not make the change in the AUKU that they are proposing now," the student leader added.
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