Minister announces major campus political reforms

Malaysia’s Education Minister Maszlee Malik last week announced major reforms to overturn laws barring students from campus political activities, lifting restrictions that allow students to hold campus elections only with the permission and oversight of university administrations.

The minister held discussions on 1 October with student activists on the repeal of the restrictive University and University Colleges Act (UUCA), also known by its Malaysian acronym AUKU, which bars students from political activities on campus, including the right of students to stand for election or hold posts in student societies or organisations.

Students said they came away pleased from the meeting. Maszlee was keen to remove political restrictions in universities, said Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi, a final-year law student who led the student group in discussions with the minister.

They understood from the minister that specific provisions of the act would be repealed at the next parliamentary sitting – pending the abolition of the act by next year, Asheeq said.

This rolls back the five-year timeframe previously promised. On 1 August, the new Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching said the government was looking at abolishing the UUCA within the next five years, and announced the setting up of a committee to review the act.

“There is also a need to replace it with a new act, so we need some time for the consultation process with the relevant stakeholders,” she said at the time.

As a short-term measure, she said the provision in the act relating to students and politics on campus would be repealed “to give them more room”. With this, politicians from the ruling coalition and opposition parties could also enter campuses without any obstacles “to share their views and for intellectual purposes, but not on political issues”.

Students opposed five-year timescale

The five-year timeframe did not go down well with student activists led by Asheeq, who met Maszlee looking for a quicker repeal of the act.

Maszlee agreed to include a few students in the education ministry’s working committee to abolish the UUCA and come up with a new act. “This is much better compared to the five-year timeframe that was promised earlier, which was rubbish; anyone could have said that,” Asheeq told University World News. “And this is the first time the students have been given a chance to participate in policy-making.”

Asheeq said the repeal of the UUCA by next year was discussed, but first, the new government needs to consider the Dewan Negara or senate, consult stakeholders and come up with a replacement act.

The composition of the senate (upper house) is a potential obstacle in the way of an early repeal. Senators are appointed by federal and state governments for three-year terms, and currently, the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition holds a majority in the house.

Last month, the new Pakatan Harapan government passed a bill in the lower house (parliament) to repeal the unpopular and repressive Anti-Fake News Act, enacted by the BN government ahead of the May general election. But the bill was blocked by the senate by a 28-21 majority – the first time this has happened. That balance in favour of the BN in the senate could change later next year, when the terms of several senators are due to expire.

However, the removal of some specific provisions of the UUCA does not require the senate approval, says Asheeq, who now expects the more contentious Section 15(2)(c), which forbids students from being “involved in political activities within the campus”, to be deleted at the next sitting of the lower house.

Previous amendments

In 2012, the BN government amended the UUCA to remove a provision that prohibited students who hold posts in political parties from holding posts in campus bodies.

But the amended act still contains provisions prohibiting students from getting involved in political activities. Section 15(3), for instance, forbids students from giving support or opposition to societies or organisations which the university authorities deem to be “unsuitable to the interests and wellbeing of the students or the university”.

In practice, that meant students could still be subjected to disciplinary action if they were actively involved in politics – especially the opposition politics of the time.

“I myself was suspended by UKM [the National University of Malaysia] in 2016 when I attended a Tangkap MO1 [Arrest MO1] rally,” Asheeq told University World News. ‘Malaysian Official 1’ (MO1) was the term used in a United States Department of Justice affidavit, widely believed to refer to former prime minister Najib Razak, now facing a string of alleged money laundering charges in Malaysia, which he denies.

Expectations of more democratic space ran high after the May 2018 general election defeat of the BN ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation, which had ruled the nation for over six decades.

The incoming regime under Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) had vowed in its manifesto that repressive laws like the UUCA would be repealed. Maszlee, a former university lecturer, said he himself had been a “victim of UUCA” while in opposition.

Asheeq, who had earlier opposed Maszlee over a perceived conflict of interest when the minister took on the additional role as president of the International Islamic University Malaysia, said the students were also happy with a ministry decision to drop actions against students who had voiced their opinions during the BN era.

“The past government initiated the politically motivated actions under UUCA and those actions will be dropped,” Asheeq told local media.