UKEC: Students on a tightrope

JUNE 29 ― It's a joy to watch Malaysian politicians go head to head on stage. You get differing views on how to run the country, and since it inevitably affects our fate, it's important to know who has the better ideas.

But whenever the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC) organise conferences that host these politicians, they can be dull.

In my first year of university, there was former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad so you could hear the kiss-assery of blindly loyal fanatics as well as the deafening silence of those who felt a lot of the things he did was wrong.

DAP's Tony Pua spoke the year after, and for some reason he had to talk about the higher education blueprint even if we knew he didn’t want to.

They're dull because politicians need to be safe about what they say so as to not imply any other views which they don't wish to divulge. But I kept going because there are always questions to ask those who lead you now, and may very well lead Malaysia in the future.

Two of these were Mukhriz Mahathir and Rahman Hussin who spoke at the latest Projek Amanat Negara conference in February 2017 in Leeds.

Mukhriz is poised to lead Bersatu, and since Rahman is part of the National Youth Umno Exco it is likely we will see him involved in the higher ranks of Umno in the future.

I had prepared a list of questions for both politicians, and pressed on further when they responded rather lamely.

Attendees heard answers like “We’re race-based to win elections” and “We need meritocracy and not racial politics.” They were unbearable to listen to.

Both come from parties who see no shame in dividing society racially for their own gain. Shouldn't this give us more reason to question their principles?

After the event, a woman approached me. She was eager to know me, to get my number, to know where I study, and to meet me sometime in the future at the Malaysian High Commission in London for tea.

It was strange, so I didn’t give her a missed call but kept her number anyway.

Soon after, a friend casually mentioned that a Special Branch officer was busy taking pictures and notes with her phone at the event. Special Branch officers are part of the Royal Malaysian Police and they gather intelligence for the government at Opposition events, and even student talks. So I asked if she looked like the woman who had approached me. What. A. Coincidence.

UKEC has a reputation for not being vocal enough about the political issues that matter, but until we realise that every government agency has a leash on them, we will falsely keep thinking that all of our student leaders are ignorant.

Well, some are. In every aspect of life, from corporate boardrooms to student committees, you meet these people. They may start from leadership positions in student organisations and then later on join politics or business or a mixture of both for the wrong reasons: power, instead of society’s welfare.

But what we need to realise when we read scathing critiques of UKEC’s “elite circles” is that the people within UKEC keep changing.

In my first year of university, there was an uncomfortable perception that political connections was the reason to organise events, invite speakers, or even form new organisations.

You get to put that on your CV at the end of the day; president of this, adviser for that.

It has changed since then. There has been a consistent effort to move away from white elephant events and organise more informal discussions. Away from political soundbites and corporate jargon to scientific topics and NGO work.

But UKEC will forever be walking on a tightrope if Special Branch, other government agencies or even the Opposition have an overbearing influence on student networks.

Because of this, student organisations such as the Malaysian Progressives UK, along with UKEC, have to watch their words at all times.

It doesn't have to be like this: we should be able to have political debates from the entire spectrum. We should be able to talk, argue, and see who has the better idea in deciding our country's fate.

Politicians love to talk about empowering the youth, but how is trying to silence student voices empowering? As a result, UKEC develops that image of being elitist, of being silent on the most important issues of this country, and ultimately, of being misguided.

The overblown hype of events attests to our constant need to burnish our reputation via social media.

Furthermore, unchecked spending on events reflects our general lack of knowledge of what any event should aim to achieve (hint: it excludes making oneself look better).

I made the same mistake when I led the Leeds Malaysian society once and spent a lot of money on T-shirts people did not want to buy.

In the end it comes down to what student leaders want to make of ourselves no matter where we are.

UKEC struggles with that, and it's up to them ― and every other student ― to maneuver their way around the country's politics even if we are only just students.

But we aew also future voters. The government knows that and can control it at the expense of true youth empowerment.

I wholeheartedly believe current UKEC student leaders want to make more of themselves and the general student community.

Remember this though: the problems they face are no different from that faced by the general population. What do you want to do about it? Complain?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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