Students will be allowed to join political parties, but not on campus

Bills to amend longstanding laws banning students from joining political parties were tabled in Malaysia’s parliament last week, with student groups and opposition parties saying that restrictive university laws should be repealed, not amended.

Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin on Monday 9 April tabled amendments to three laws including the notorious Section 15 of the Universities and University Colleges Act, or UUCA (also known by its Malaysian acronym AUKU), as well as the private higher education and education institutions acts.

The amendments would allow students to join political parties, which is currently forbidden in the country.

However, the right to join political parties will only apply off-campus, to avoid undue influence of political parties on campuses and politicisation of universities, the ministry has said.

Student organisations have said the amendments are cosmetic and do not go far enough to restore their constitutional rights. This is because political activities will continue to be forbidden at universities, including the right of students to stand for election or hold any posts in student societies, organisations or groups on campus.

The issues raised are about student autonomy and freedom and not just membership of political parties, according to Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, or SMM, an umbrella group of Malaysian student organisations.

“We accept the amendments. They are welcome. But we are sad to hear there will still be a lot of prohibitions,” said Syukri Abdul Razab, a student activist and former SMM chair.

“This situation is worse than before [the amendments]. Students who join political parties will not be able to join any activities prohibited on campus. For example, they will be prohibited from being representatives on the student council of their universities.

“So they will be apart from their university. This will make them more scared to join political parties.” Razab told University World News.

Students said they were demanding the right to full political expression and assembly, and calling for the UUCA be abolished rather than “tinkering at the edges” with amendments.

According to the Higher Education Ministry, the types of on-campus organisations to be forbidden will be determined by individual universities.

Nordin told local media that penalties for breaching the provisions of the act would also be in the hands of the universities, which would use their internal disciplinary procedures. “It won’t be a criminal penalty.”

But Razab said: “If the government gives the power to universities to monitor students they could abuse or misuse that power, as university management has a propensity to side with the government. The government should empower students, not empower the university management in this way.”

In addition, student groups and opposition parties said that asking universities to monitor and implement the law underlined that universities were not truly free of government control.

The opposition People’s Justice Party, led by Anwar Ibrahim, said the amendments were “superficial, ineffective, restrictive” and intended to maintain the government’s “iron grip on students and universities”, according to a statement by N Surendran, PJP vice-president, on Monday. It too called for the law to “be repealed in its entirety”.

“The whole thrust and purport of the UUCA is to stifle, repress and silence students and university ruling bodies and staff. Under the UUCA 1971, the appointment of the vice-chancellor, board of directors and senate are all in the control of the government,” allowing the government “to maintain a stranglehold on both the administration and academic content of our universities,” the statement said.

“Other provisions such as Section 4 of the UUCA allow the minister to intervene directly in the affairs of the universities.”

SMM’s Razab stressed: “What we are demanding is the complete abolishing of the UUCA, which would give autonomy back to the universities.”

Before the UUCA and other internal security bills were enacted in the early 1970s universities had power, governance and duties to produce students of high quality. But the 1971 UUCA law “put universities under the control of the government”, said Razab. “Our universities are ready to make their own laws, as they did before 1971.”

In an attempt to mollify students, the amendment bill will also introduce new clauses to the law to set up student complaints committees in universities. Nordin said the government had suggested that the committees be headed by the vice-chancellor and also comprise student and alumni representatives “to hear the grouses put forth”.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has said he will improve civil liberties. He is particularly keen to attract the youth vote ahead of national elections, expected to be called within months.

The amendments are expected to pass in the coming weeks, as the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has a majority in parliament.