KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 23 ― Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad insisted he has “no” regrets implementing a law seen as curtailing university students' rights, saying he felt it was for their benefit.
Dr Mahathir, who was the education minister from 1974 to 1977, said he had wanted undergraduates to be able to focus on their studies.
“No. The answer is no. I don't seek popularity. I do what I think it is right. I believe what I did at that time was in the interests of the students, particularly Malay students.
“I'm sorry to be racist to care about what happens to Malay students, but believe me the performance of Malay students is not as good as the performance of the Chinese and the Indians. They need to focus on acquiring the knowledge, they need more time, they don't have time for other things.
“Unless it is very serious, if the matter is very serious, by all means demonstrate,” he said at a forum last night, having earlier pointed out that he was one of only seven Malays in 70 students in medical college and with poorer academic qualifications than the other ethnic groups.
Commenting on the use of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, Dr Mahathir said the first demonstration that he had to handle was over alleged fatal starvation in Baling, which he said was a hoax.
He pointed out that Malaysians will not starve to death as neighbourly spirit meant food will be shared with those who lack food, adding that the alleged starvation was merely used to “hammer” the government then.
“But it's not true, it was a lie and it took away students from their studies, they became very agitated, they couldn't concentrate on their studies, so we had to remove the people who instigated this, because we want the students to study,” he said.
“So my view is I did not do anything that I consider wrong when I was implementing AUKU, it's unfortunate that someone had to leave the university, but because of them leaving the university, the others can focus on their study, but if they are there, they will agitate people to not to study but to demonstrate,” he said, referring to the UUCA by its Malay initials.
“I don't feel guilty, my conscience is clear, I did what I think is best for the country, if you don't agree, that is your right to disagree,” he said.
Earlier on in the forum, Dr Mahathir also noted that the UUCA was enacted in 1971 before he became education minister, confirming that he had made amendments to the law where students who wanted to demonstrate had to seek the university's approval.
He said he now supports demonstrations as there is allegedly no other effective channel of voicing out protest in the country and as the Court of Appeal had ruled against provisions in the UUCA.
Explaining that undergraduates are being funded by taxpayers' money to study, Dr Mahathir said he was in the past against student demonstrations as he felt it was their responsibility as public-funded students to study and as there was a need to close the disparity between Malays and non-Malays.
He noted 40 per cent of Malaysian doctors are now Malays compared to only two during his time, owing to affirmative action policies where Malays were given scholarships to study.
“We were cursed by the opposition 'why do you favor the Malays? Give scholarship and many things to Malays. This is racist'. But I don't care about what they say, my job is to reduce the disparity between the different races, because if there is big disparity between the races, believe me, this country will see racial riots as we saw in 1969,” he said.
Repeatedly pressed in the forum for his views whether he would support Malaysian undergraduates' bid to have the law abolished, Dr Mahathir argued that calls for abolition of the UUCA would go unheeded as long as the present government remains in place.
“It’s easy for me to say I agree with you, it’s very easy, but how do you do it? You talk a lot...but we can’t do anything. I’m a realist, I do what I can do, if it’s beyond me I don’t do,” he finally said.
He had earlier cautioned that repealing the UUCA could mean the introduction of a worse law to replace it, noting that the government had in recent years repealed the Internal Security Act 1960 but instead enacted the National Security Council Act which denies inquest for those who died during detention without trial.
“That's why if we find there are errors in law, you can amend the law; our laws are not perfect, this is not God's law, this is man's law, man is never perfect If we want to amend the UUCA, amend; if want to remove it, then remove it, but don't replace it with some Act that is worse,” he said.
Student activist Anis Syafiqah Mohd Yusof, who shared the stage with Dr Mahathir and was recently suspended from Universiti Malaya for one semester and fined RM400 for her role in a peaceful protest, insisted that UUCA should be abolished and replaced with a policy drafted by her predecessors.
“I believe the UUCA has to be replaced with a new alternative, not with a worse alternative like how ISA was replaced with Sosma, but an alternative to UUCA has to be based on the philosophy, principle and spirit of academic freedom and the spirit of constitutionalism and the law,” the chairman of undergraduate coalition Kesatuan Mahasiswa Malaysia said.
Citing the new national higher education policy prepared by undergraduates who had pushed for UUCA's abolition, she said this disproved those who claim that “undergraduates only know how to protest, only know how to complain and do not come with alternatives and solutions to problems”.
The forum titled “AUKU 1974: Ancaman Kepada Hak Mahasiswa?” (UUCA 1974: Threat to Undergraduates' Rights?) was organised by youth group Challenger.