Australian universities in row over student freedoms

Two Australian universities with branches in Malaysia have become embroiled in a row over written warnings to students of disciplinary action if they are found attending “illegal gatherings” – a reference to major anti-government rallies in different parts of the country at the weekend.

Monash University Malaysia and Curtin University Sarawak issued warnings to students last week in advance of major rallies on Saturday, by Bersih, a coalition of non-governmental organisations calling for clean and fair elections, a clean government and stronger parliamentary democracy. The rallies in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state are expected to attract tens of thousands.

However, a message to students from Monash Malaysia’s registrar, Susheela Nair, issued on Wednesday said: “You are advised not to participate in any illegal gathering-related activity which contravenes Malaysian laws. Any student found to be participating in such gathering activity or who is arrested by the authorities while doing so may be subjected to disciplinary proceedings.”

As in previous years when Bersih rallies were held, a number of Malaysian public universities had also warned their students and threatened “disciplinary action”. However, it is thought to be the first time that private universities have also issued such warnings.

Curtin University Sarawak, another Australian university outpost, was also reported to have sent emails to students signed by Deputy Pro Vice-chancellor Beena Giridharan, saying “appropriate action” would be taken against students involved in activities “defamatory to the university”.

Curtin claimed the Higher Education Ministry had issued a circular warning students against participating in ‘illegal gatherings’ – although local newspapers said Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh appeared to be unaware of the circular.

Last year Minister Jusoh advised students not to take part in Bersih rallies held in August and said it was for universities to take action against students who participated in rallies deemed illegal by the police. This year he said joining the rallies was “not encouraged”.

In a statement issued on Thursday, Robin Choi, secretary general of HAKAM, a human rights organisation, said: “The issuance of the notices by the universities may be perceived as an abuse of powers by the university authorities to stifle freedom of expression and to curtail student activism and participation in what is clearly a legitimate democratic process.”

He called on the universities to retract their warning notices, and added “the labelling of public rallies as an ‘illegal’ assembly must stop”.

The right to peaceful assembly under the Malaysian constitution means police permits are not required, but organisers must notify the authorities in advance and obtain permission from venue owners.

Alumni criticism

Students and alumni criticised the emails. “The right to peaceful assembly is written in our constitution,” said Monash alumna Dhivya Kanaga, who added in a Facebook comment that “it’s a bit rich preaching integrity” to young people trying to hold government to account.

Another alumna, Chin Chin Wong, said reminding students not to take part in peaceful gatherings had nothing to do with the university. Students would go to the rallies “as Malaysians, not as Monash student(s)”.

Monash Malaysia was forced to issue an “unreserved apology” on Thursday for the wording of the email which, it said, “did not properly convey the intent of the message”.

“The intent of the message was to remind students that taking part in unlawful assembly is contrary to the laws of Malaysia, and students need to be aware of the consequences of undertaking unlawful activities. Students who do participate in such activities may be subjected to criminal charges by the Malaysian authorities, and as such students need to consider carefully their participation in such events.

“Monash stands firm in our care for the well-being of all students, regardless of which country they study in, and our encouragement is to always observe and respect local laws.”

Public vs private

Previously when Bersih organised huge anti-government rallies – attracting up to 300,000 in 2014 – a number of Malaysian public universities were criticised for threatening disciplinary action against students attending the rallies which they claimed were illegal. However, at the time, Monash University, a private institution, merely advised students not to wear the Monash University T-shirt.

The deputy chief minister of the state of Penang, P Ramasamy, who is a member of the opposition Democratic Action Party and a former university professor, said while reminders and warnings from public universities directly controlled by the ruling government are common, it was surprising the two private institutions were also threatening action against students.

"Both Monash and Curtin are leading private universities in Malaysia. Taking part in an agitation, protest and demonstration done in a peaceful manner should be allowed," Ramasamy said in a statement.

"It is a terrible shame if these private universities are now functioning at the behest of the Malaysian government."

Eric Paulsen, executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, a Malaysian human rights group, said: “Monash is a private university and is not beholden to the government, nor should it support government policies in such a partisan way.”

He added it would be incoherent with policies on its main campus in Australia. “Such a policy cannot exist in Australia.”