MALAYSIA: Landmark court ruling on campus freedom

Malaysia's controversial Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU), which restricts student involvement in politics on campuses, was this week ruled unreasonable and unconstitutional by an appeal court for violating freedom of expression.

It what is being described as a landmark decision, two judges on a three-man bench at the court of appeal on 31 October ruled in favour of four students caught campaigning during a by-election in the district of Hulu Selangor in April last year in apparent breach of certain provisions of the 1971 Act restricting student involvement with political parties.

The third judge, Wira Low Hop Bink, dissented, saying political activity would stand in the way of the universities' primary purpose - of the pursuit of education.

He argued that the restrictions were necessary to prevent infiltration of political ideologies among students whom he described as "vulnerable, capable of being subjected to peer pressure and easily influenced". The restrictions were there to protect both students' and institutions' interests as a matter of policy, and were therefore reasonable.

But Justice Hishamuddin Mohammad Yunus, one of the two judges who ruled the act's provision unreasonable, said in a 21-page judgment that the provisions relating to student political activity were irrational as they impeded the "healthy development of a critical mind and original thoughts", an objective that higher institutions should strive to achieve.

"Universities should be the breeding ground of reformers and thinkers, and not institutions to produce students trained as robots. Clearly the provision is not only counterproductive but repressive in nature," Hishamuddin said.

He added that he was at a loss to understand in what manner a student who expresses support for, or opposition against, a political party could harm public order since parties were legal entities carrying out legitimate political activities.

The four former political science students, all of them now graduated and working, initially challenged the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), their alma mater, in the high court. It dismissed their case last September, prompting the current appeal.

The four claimed they had received notice from UKM requiring them to appear before a disciplinary tribunal to answer charges of alleged breach of provisions of the act.

Muhammad Hilman Udham, one of the four students, described the appeal court decision as "historic". As tomorrow's leaders, students must be empowered to make decisions for themselves before they make decisions for the benefit of the nation, he told local media.

"And the court agreed with this argument when it called for the AUKU to be amended to allow students the right to express themselves without any unnecessary restrictions," he said.

Syukri Abdul Razak, chair of Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, an umbrella group for half a dozen student organisations that have long opposed the act, said the court decision was welcomed by students.

Although the four students who brought the case had now graduated and were free to be involved in political activity, "this decision is a brighter hope for students who are still at university. It is of benefit to them. And it shows that what we have been fighting for for so long is relevant.

"But this is not the end of our fight. We are seeking more attention from the government towards [the act]. The fight will go on until the act is abolished, and only then will students have their freedom as Malaysians," Razak told University World News.

He said if the university appealed to the federal court, students would be prepared, with a mass rally planned for December "to urge the government to respond to the court to make sure the university does not make the appeal".

Razak said if the government and the university continued the case with an appeal "then they will keep fighting with us. We students will not retreat and we will continue to fight until the provisions in the act are abolished."

He said students would continue to lobby members of parliament to repeal the law.

Even the dissenting judge had said it was not for the court to say whether the law itself was harsh and unjust. "Parliament may wish to consider an amendment" to the relevant provisions and the act in particular, Low said in his summing up.

Lawyer Mohammad Shafee Abdullah told the court he had instructions from UKM to take the matter to the federal court, according to the official news agency Bernama.

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