Controversial campus politics ban clause hastily removed by parliament

Students in Malaysia will be allowed to join political parties and take part in other activities on campus, after amendments to the controversial Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) were rushed through parliament last week.

Government attempts to bar students who become members of Malaysian political parties from holding positions in campus societies were scrapped from the UUCA amendments, after cross-party opposition pointed out that this was against the spirit of the changes, which are intended to allow students more political freedom.

Bills to remove longstanding laws banning students from joining political parties were tabled in parliament earlier this month.

Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin told parliament on Thursday that a ban on student politics on campus was needed to “ensure universities remain politically neutral at all times”.

However, the bill was passed without the campus restrictions after parliamentarians from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition said it would stifle students’ freedom of expression.

“Although we agree that campus neutrality is needed to ensure that politics does not interfere with academic pursuits, we should not go to the extent of imposing regressive restrictions on the freedom given,” said member of parliament Khairy Jamaluddin, chairman of the youth wing of the governing coalition as well as the youth section of the UMNO political party.

The restriction would have give the impression that the government’s desire to change “is merely half baked and would create more negative polemic”, he argued.

The government’s proposals outlaw undergraduates with political party positions from “even holding a position in a theatre or drama club at the university. It does not make sense,” Khairy said in the Dewan Rakyat, or lower house.

He added that barring politically active students from holding on-campus posts would hamper efforts to find future political leaders for the country, as universities were the “best training ground to harness their abilities.”

Political neutrality of universities could be maintained by monitoring student activities, Khairy said.

The amendments that have been passed continue to give university managements the right to restrict political activities on campus, including giving university boards full authority to decide where students can speak if they feel this is detrimental to university rules – even if the organisers are within the law.

Students have called for the complete abolition of the UUCA, which is also known by its Malaysian acronym AUKU.

The three amended bills were passed unanimously by the lower house on 19 April as part of a raft of bills rushed through during an unprecedented extended session, expected to be the last before a general election is announced.

Opposition politicians accused the government of ‘bulldozing’ bills through parliament, which sat through the night, because the government wanted to position itself well before calling elections at which young people could sway the vote.