Seeking the moral compass in universities

NOVEMBER 18 ― Student activist Asheeq Ali is the latest university student accused of violating the rules and regulations of his university with activities or behaviour deemed detrimental to public order or the image of the university concerned.

In Asheeq’s case, he was found guilty ― and suspended ― by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) disciplinary board recently for participating in the #TangkapMO1 rally last August.

And quite recently, a Universiti Malaya (UM) student was issued a show-cause letter by the university authorities for having holding a placard with the words “1MDB, please return the rakyat’s money” during a town hall meeting on the issue of 1MDB where its CEO Arul Kandasamy was present. Such behaviour is inappropriate for such an occasion, says the university.

Last month, three more students from UM, Suhail Wan Azahar, Luqman Hakim and Luqman Nul Haqim, were issued show-cause letters by UM’s administration for their involvement in the #TangkapMO1 rally. This is after its spokesperson Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof was issued similar letter for spearheading the rally.

These students were not involved in, say, an embezzlement of money meant for the funding of student activities on campus and beyond. Neither were they linked to an act of bribing certain officials from the Student Affairs Department of the universities concerned so that they can make campus election banners larger and fancier than the ones prescribed by the university authorities. And they were not entangled in bribery so that their political collective can win the campus elections through unfair and undemocratic means.

To be sure, their “crime” was merely to be concerned about social justice and issues of national import and significance. Their sense of right and wrong dictates that they ought to do something expected of university students ― such as expressing publicly and peacefully their collective concerns ― that goes a long way towards righting a wrong in society.

And yet, the authorities of the local universities concerned found such conscionable acts by the students to be objectionable and, lo and behold, to have supposedly smeared the good name of these institutions of higher learning.

Have the authorities of certain local universities lost their marbles? Or to put it more diplomatically and academically, have they lost their moral compass?

This may sound old fashioned and perhaps un-chic in this age of knowledge commodification, but surely it is in the university that students are expected to develop via their experience in and outside the classroom into well-rounded and conscientious individuals who have compassion, care and concern for other people, particularly the marginalised and underprivileged, in matters of social justice, freedom and human dignity.

This is, of course, apart from the university imparting knowledge and skills that would prepare students for the job market. Hence, the students are given the necessary grounding in their areas of specialisation, such as engineering, medicine, law, communication studies, geography, history and linguistics.

But university education is not only about training students for employment. University is also a place where, by engaging in such issues as poverty, economic disparity and corruption, students should be able to see the relevance of social justice, freedom, state accountability and democracy to their academic disciplines. In short, to prevent them from being trapped in their own silos.

Such social and political engagement among students would help a long way towards developing individuals who are broad-minded and, equally important, unselfish or less self-centred. Also, it provides a good training ground for leadership as well as putting emphasis on the importance of democratic participation.

Incidentally, it is disturbing to learn that Malaysian campuses of certain foreign universities ― that supposedly cherish the intellectual and political freedom and democratic participation of students in their home countries ― have also jumped on the same band-wagon of public universities. They have chosen to deter their Malaysians students from participating in what they claim to be “illegal gatherings”, thereby restricting their freedom of expression and assembly.

Furthermore, in a progressive academic environment, the university students are expected to make some meaningful changes in society after they graduate ― instead of merely reproducing, if not further reinforcing, an already unfair and faulty world.

Thus, one would think that, for instance, students particularly of sustainable development and anthropology, would not shy away from issues that have confronted the Orang Asli in the peninsula and the natives in Sarawak over the question of logging and transgression of their ancestral land. And the question of environmental destruction arising from unfettered logging activities should also concern such students.

Concerned students would be attentive to, for example, the poverty and socio-economic marginalisation that haunt estate Indians particularly those who have transformed into neglected urban poor after migrating to the urban areas.

And students of political science, among others, should be sensitive to issues arising from, say, persecution of whistle-blowers under the obnoxious Official Secrets Act that have serious implications on transparency and accountability of ruling politicians and state officials particularly in the long and arduous fight against corruption.

At a time when our nation is facing serious challenges, such as immense debts incurred by the government, that have deep implications for the present and future generations, students have every right to be concerned and to express their anxiety freely and peacefully in the public domain.

It would be a dereliction of their role and duty if and when universities deny students, who are energised by their burning idealism, their right to follow their conscience to dissent and to exercise their intellectual and political freedom in public spaces.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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