Punishing the wrong people

DECEMBER 21 — It is disturbing that authorities in Universiti Malaya (UM) handed down harsh sentences to its student activists who participated in the “Tangkap MO1” rally recently. 

The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) administration also did the same with a student who joined the same demonstration. 

Furthermore, it is appalling that the university establishment has continuously and unabashedly aped the attitude and demeanour of the powers-that-be who are inclined to rule by fiat as opposed to having intellectual engagement in the form of, say, dialogue, debate or discussion as is expected in a functioning parliamentary democracy. 

It is even more alarming for a university, supposedly an academic domain that encourages intellectual discourse and the pursuit of truth and knowledge, to have acted in a manner that is ironically anti-intellectual in nature and consequently provides bad example to its students, many of whom look up to the authorities for good leadership. 

After all, didn’t the Minister of Higher Education Idris Jusoh declare — i.e. if we were to take his word at face value — that this is “a free country” when he countered the accusation of “external interference” in this issue? 

And if that is so, shouldn’t UM (as well as UKM) independently take a principled and dignified stand as regards its dealing with this group of students? 

For starters, the university should acknowledge and value the importance and role of differences of opinion and dissent in academia in particular and the larger society as a whole. 

Academia by definition is not meant to produce yes-men and yes-women. It is supposed to help develop young minds to be critical so that they can then provide useful contribution to society in various ways during and after their studies. 

In short, universities should unashamedly be the standard bearer of freedom of expression. In this regard, it would help if the UM top officials were to re-read their Core Value of Academic Freedom, that is, among others, to tolerate “viewpoints or activities that differ from own perspectives” and to appreciate and promote “the expression and exchange of diverse ideas and viewpoints.” 

This also means that views that are critical of, say, the government as well as the opposition should be given equal and fair hearing on campus; not just government views as is the normal case. 

The authorities of the oldest university in the country should also be proud of having students such as Anis Syafiqah, who keep true to their conscience — at the expense of their own personal interests — about what they feel should be done to right the wrongs in society. 

This youthful idealism, as I have mentioned elsewhere some time ago, is precious to nation-building and the development of parliamentary democracy, and therefore should not be cast aside and be easily frowned upon by the cynic and the powerful. 

It would be instructive for the UM high officials to revisit their very own Core Value of Integrity, that is, among others, to demonstrate “high ethical and moral values” and to stand by “decisions that are in the interest of truth and justice without fear or favour”. 

Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof, who led the protest, and her two fellow UM students have been suspended for a semester and fined RM400 while the fourth was only fined RM400. Student activist Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi of UKM was also suspended by the university authorities. 

Collectively, they were spurred by their conscience to protest against the endemic corruption that has plagued the nation.

Mind you, these students were not even nursing the idea of a violent protest, such as making a threat to literally slap a certain foreign dignitary. 

Given the kind of harsh sentences meted out by the universities concerned to these students, what message are the universities concerned trying to send to students and other Malaysians? 

Are we to conclude that the university authorities are against students who are conscionable and concerned about the future of the country and the morality, in the widest sense of the word, of public personalities? 

Worse still, and Heaven forbid, does this imply that the university administration concerned condones corruption particularly those at the highest level? 

Universities should be the bulwark against elements of anti-intellectualism and unethical practises from festering in a society that thirsts for freedom of information and expression, vibrant discourses and social justice. 

The integrity of a university is dependent on noble values and principles, apart from the much talked about KPIs. Indeed, it doesn’t take the students to smudge the image of a university. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles