MALAYSIA: Repressive university act under review
Yojana Sharma 16 October 2011 Issue No:193
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Hopes that a draconian law that restricts political activity on university campuses in Malaysia might be scrapped have risen dramatically in recent weeks, with government ministers publicly calling for change. But academics say it will only be a partial opening up, with lecturers and university staff still subject to controls.
The 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU) makes it an offence for students to express "support, sympathy or opposition" for a political party whether Malaysian or foreign.
It also effectively allows government interference in the general operation of universities, ostensibly to enforce the act, which includes under its remit a prohibition on students joining any organisation deemed by the higher education ministry to be 'unsuitable' for student involvement.
Malaysia's Deputy Higher Education Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has been the most notable member of the government to back a change in favour of students.
Abdullah said in late September that the priority was to repeal a section of the act prohibiting students from becoming involved in politics.
"Abolishing section 15 of AUKU not only respects the constitutional right of the students but it will also increase democratic participation among youth," he told local newspapers.
Change in government attitude
Academics have noted a change in the government's attitude.
"There will be some changes. The higher education ministry is doing a review but if there are changes it will only be after the general election which will be in the middle of next year," political science Professor James Chin, head of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia, told University World News.
It will not make a huge difference for students who have long been involved in political activities on campus, calling them 'cultural' or 'leadership' events, he said. "But [the act] stops the opposition recruiting candidates among the students."
Chin said while the government was considering changing the parts of the act that deal with student political activity, there was no apparent move to allow the same rights to lecturers and staff.
"Full-time academic staff have tenure, they are civil servants and are easier [for the government] to control. So if they change [the act] it will only be a partial change in favour of students."
The law has also been criticised as standing in the way of recruiting foreign students and lecturers to Malaysian universities by restricting academic freedom, although many branch campuses of foreign universities have not been deterred from setting up in the country.
Increased calls for change
The chorus of voices calling for an end to restrictions on students has swelled since Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's surprise announcement in his annual Malaysia Day policy address on 15 September that the government would abolish the notoriously repressive Internal Security Act (ISA) and three other emergency proclamations.
Repealing the ISA, not thought to be an easy political decision, while leaving the AUKU untouched would be "only meeting the people's expectations halfway", said Abdullah in a public statement shortly afterwards, adding that there was no reason not to allow students to participate in politics.
A review of the AUKU should allow students to support and be members of any political party, to campaign in elections and hold party political office, Abdullah said.
"Furthermore, many have complained about the lack of communication and critical thinking skills among our students - the AUKU is partly responsible for this because it suppresses their ability to speak out."
Just weeks before, Chua Soi Lek, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, which is a member of the ruling...
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