Students, activists believe Dr M will unshackle universities

Placards promoting academic freedom line the road heading into Universiti Malaya on December 12, 2014. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Placards promoting academic freedom line the road heading into Universiti Malaya on December 12, 2014. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 28 — Students and activists affected by laws curbing academic freedom — a legacy of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's previous administration — expressed faith today that the prime minister will honour his word and free universities from decades of political interference.

Two student leaders who were punished by their universities for dissidence told a forum on academic freedom here that they expect nothing less than total autonomy for universities, and they were optimistic that the man blamed for the laws that fettered academia will respond accordingly.

“He had said he would honour his word,” Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi, one of the leaders that led the Tangkap M01 movement, told a forum organised by Fortify Rights, an advocacy group that documents human rights violations in Malaysian campuses.

“And one of the pledges made by Pakatan Harapan in their manifesto is to amend AUKU,” he added.

AUKU, or the University and Colleges Act, was introduced in 1971 in what critics said was aimed at curbing the rise of student activists critical of the ruling Barisan Nasional government at the time.

From 1975 to 2012, the former BN government amended the law five times, initially increasing prohibitions on students’ activities on and off campus, Fortify Rights noted in a statement issued to accompany its 2017 annual report on rights infringement in campuses for the past one year.

The law outlined penalties for those found involved in activism, among others by imposing stiff penalties for violations that also included potential imprisonment under the 1975 amendment.

Later amendments in 2009 and 2012 removed prohibitions for off-campus activities and reduced penalties to expulsion and monetary fines, but key restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association remain.

Details for the proposed amendments are scant, but Education Minister Maszlee Malik, a former lecturer and vocal proponent of academic freedom, previously said these would entail the removal of all provisions that curtail free speech.

Maszlee is also a member of the new political party found by Dr Mahathir, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

But students previously said achieving genuine academic freedom requires reforms beyond amending the AUKU.

Structural changes are crucial, and these usually involve greater transformation such as ensuring universities have financial freedom or full autonomy to elect its own senate and board of directors.

“To have this autonomy we must normalise this culture of free speech not only within campus, but for society outside university walls,” said Anis Syafiqah, another student leader punished for her involvement in the movement that called for the resignation of then prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak.

“The new law must be one that creates a fair and free education system that does not punish those who speak up,” she added.

“And we must also look into how universities can survive financially, and this is a serious matter to address, especially now that their budgets have been cut.”

Fortify Rights, in its report entitled “No Politics On Campus”, said university authorities still punish students critical of the government, more so when the backlash stemming from scandals dogging the Najib administration grew stronger.

Student leaders like Anis and Asheeq were handed long suspensions while others were either fined or expelled.

Fortify Rights chief executive Matthew Smith said that with a more progressive coalition in power, the government should stop all ongoing proceedings against students and reverse past actions.

“A new day is dawning in Malaysia, and the new government has an historic opportunity to end these needless restrictions once and for all,” he told the forum.

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