MALAYSIA: Repressive university act under review

Hopes that a draconian law that restricts political activity on university campuses in Malaysia might be scrapped have risen dramatically in recent weeks, with government ministers publicly calling for change. But academics say it will only be a partial opening up, with lecturers and university staff still subject to controls.

The 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU) makes it an offence for students to express "support, sympathy or opposition" for a political party whether Malaysian or foreign.

It also effectively allows government interference in the general operation of universities, ostensibly to enforce the act, which includes under its remit a prohibition on students joining any organisation deemed by the higher education ministry to be 'unsuitable' for student involvement.

Malaysia's Deputy Higher Education Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has been the most notable member of the government to back a change in favour of students.

Abdullah said in late September that the priority was to repeal a section of the act prohibiting students from becoming involved in politics.

"Abolishing section 15 of AUKU not only respects the constitutional right of the students but it will also increase democratic participation among youth," he told local newspapers.

Change in government attitude

Academics have noted a change in the government's attitude.

"There will be some changes. The higher education ministry is doing a review but if there are changes it will only be after the general election which will be in the middle of next year," political science Professor James Chin, head of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia, told University World News.

It will not make a huge difference for students who have long been involved in political activities on campus, calling them 'cultural' or 'leadership' events, he said. "But [the act] stops the opposition recruiting candidates among the students."

Chin said while the government was considering changing the parts of the act that deal with student political activity, there was no apparent move to allow the same rights to lecturers and staff.

"Full-time academic staff have tenure, they are civil servants and are easier [for the government] to control. So if they change [the act] it will only be a partial change in favour of students."

The law has also been criticised as standing in the way of recruiting foreign students and lecturers to Malaysian universities by restricting academic freedom, although many branch campuses of foreign universities have not been deterred from setting up in the country.

Increased calls for change

The chorus of voices calling for an end to restrictions on students has swelled since Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's surprise announcement in his annual Malaysia Day policy address on 15 September that the government would abolish the notoriously repressive Internal Security Act (ISA) and three other emergency proclamations.

Repealing the ISA, not thought to be an easy political decision, while leaving the AUKU untouched would be "only meeting the people's expectations halfway", said Abdullah in a public statement shortly afterwards, adding that there was no reason not to allow students to participate in politics.

A review of the AUKU should allow students to support and be members of any political party, to campaign in elections and hold party political office, Abdullah said.

"Furthermore, many have complained about the lack of communication and critical thinking skills among our students - the AUKU is partly responsible for this because it suppresses their ability to speak out."

Just weeks before, Chua Soi Lek, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, which is a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional or National Front coalition, had said: "There should be more channels for peaceful dissent." The association called for the act to be amended to allow students and lecturers to be involved in political activities. "This is to respect their rights as voters," he said.

Adding to the groundswell the Sultan of Perak, Azlan Shah, who is also pro vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya, told the university convocation on 3 October that the outdated laws "curtail the progress of higher education institutions".

Students welcome the moves

The public comments have been widely welcomed by student groups, although some believe that amending the act would be a cynical move by the government to garner support from young people who feel alienated from the government and who, according to surveys, want more freedoms.

The deputy higher education minister's comments in particular have struck a chord, including the view also expressed by others in the ruling coalition that political participation forms part of a holistic university experience and contributes to the development of wider skills.

"We in our movement have been fighting to abolish this act since 1975. What we have said to the government is that the right to be a student must be a full right," said Ahmad Shukri Kamarudin of Solidarity Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM), an umbrella group for half a dozen student organisations. "This act is against human rights, especially student rights. We cannot speak out. We cannot even go to university together."

Kamarudin's higher education loan was suspended by the National Higher Education Fund after he allegedly became involved in a local by-election in Hulu Selangor district north of the capital Kuala Lumpur, although he says he was not campaigning for any particular party. Some 1,500 other students were also affected.

But Kamarudin told University World News he would now receive a 'special scholarship' from the local state government, where opposition parties hold sway.

He said in the wake of the prime minister's September speech, SMM had written to him, as well as to the higher education minister and his deputy, calling on them to abolish the act. "If the ISA can be abolished, why can't the universities act be abolished? It will require legislative change but it is not impossible," said Kamarudin.

Only deputy minister Abdullah responded to SMM. "We are disappointed but the deputy higher education minister is serious about [changing] the act and said he would fight to abolish it."

Only a partial change

The government last talked about amending the law in 2008, but backed away from real change in August 2010. An amendment in 2009 simply allowed a university vice-chancellor to grant permission to students to join a political party - creating a political minefield for university leaders who feared they would be held responsible for student protests and other political activity. All criminal penalties were removed for students violating university laws.

The Malaysian human rights group Aliran has said that "the all-embracing nature of the act is such that if university students wish to organise a disco or a debate they can only do so after securing the prior consent of their vice-chancellor.

"The act extends to academic staff. They are prohibited from making any public statement that may be perceived as being 'political'."

Changes mentioned by Abdullah will only be a partial victory for students, rights groups say. Student activity is also controlled by other laws including the police act, which has been much-criticised by human rights organisations for restricting the right of assembly.

"Any change [to the AUKU] will be symbolic rather than anything else. The bottom line is that it will allow students to join political parties but will not allow them to join demonstrations," said Chin of Monash.

There are also academics who continue to voice fears that any changes will politicise universities, allowing political parties to recruit on campuses around the country. They argue that the act allows for a clear separation of universities from politics.

They believe the government might still back away at the final hurdle, as happened in 2010.

* Honey Singh Virdee contributed to this report.