There is no such thing as a pliant undergraduate

NOVEMBR 13 — “Be careful what kind of leaders you’re producing here,” Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Frank Slade punctuated halfway through his defence of the boy who saved him from his own bullet, on a school stage in the film Scent Of A Woman.

“I don’t know if Charlie’s (his ward) silence here today is right or wrong. I’m not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: He won’t sell anybody out to buy his future! And that, my friends, is called integrity.

“That’s called courage.”

Al Pacino in the role of that old blind soldier could have been speaking as well about how leaders are being moulded in Malaysia today.

How working the system to rise above is practical, and repeating stale dogma necessary to be accepted.

Malaysia is asking its students to lose their idealism early, so that they become better pegs in the machine of social acceptance.

Are we likely to be a stronger nation by coercing all our young, our most gifted, to sell out at the first chance and trade that choice for institutional-guaranteed success?

From Pantai to PJ

Weeks ago, Universiti Malaya held a gathering despite the best efforts of the university administration to stop it. The failed blockade was because Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim was invited to speak on the eve of his trial.

This is not about Anwar. This is about the student leader Fahmi Zainol and his motley crew of young dissidents who risked their university degrees to host someone they felt should be addressing the campus.

The organisers then went off on a roadshow of sorts to Borneo, where they got promptly arrested.

Fahmi’s life as a student now is an unending nightmare.

He is not the first student to be zeroed in for being contrarian to the federal government, but he is a first it appears to have a proactive response to the situation in recent times.

Rather than letting the university set the terms of engagement, his team is opening up all kinds of cans of worms to see what can come out of the situation.

Sitting here in Hulu Langat watching these developments, I cannot but be impressed.

Campus life

I’ve spent a long time in educational spaces, and never is there more joy than to have come across a precocious mind. I’m from the system. When someone has gone through years of an uncompromising rote learning culture bent on reducing free will, which is our education system, and still remain strong and true to their character, it is a sight to behold.

For those who have already yielded to the system, they are mountains to move.

They aim to please, unwilling to consider the ease in which they comply, celebrate their gains and refuse to assume responsibility over their living space. It is particularly painful to see the gifted adapting to secure the most benefits from the situation.

From these we seek the captains of our industries, the visionaries to lead us forward and the clarion voices to calm us when caught in the eye of the storm.

I remember this one time, a girl in my class. It’s a big lecture hall but she did something and she had a twin sister in the class. In my desperation to force the larger class population to participate in lecture debates that semester, I would call out names and if they refuse to interact they have to leave. It was an ethics class, which means you can argue any, which way, as long as you do.

When I called her name, she just stared at me. After waiting long enough, I said she had to leave the class. At this point she did open her mouth, arguing that since she is a fee paying student she had every right to remain in class despite her reticence to participate.

Her money gave her a seat, it did not require her participation. I was not prepared for that, and she won. The university was very driven by profit not principle, and she was right that the dean probably would share her sentiment.

Thing is, she did participate in a discourse over rights, her rights at least. She chose not to accept her fate as the many who were asked to leave before her.

It is regrettable that both of us have that experience thanks to an acrimonious situation, still I feel both of us learnt something.

It tells for instance the extent in which a lecturer has to go to solicit words from some bright students in this country. It tells how rare students who are both bold and anti-establishment carrying their convictions in their campuses are.

This is not my revolution

Bob Dylan said that every generation had to reject the one before it in order to finds its own voice.

Active students in university campuses do not mean support for Anwar, it sure does not mean support for me. Students are their own masters, in that regard and it is important that they are.

There are enough opposition leaders who assume the sympathy students have to their cause as proof they are strong supporters. They’ll be sorely disappointed.

The young are apprehensive about those who speak of permanency and a singularity of views.

New is often defined by being different, and a set of ideas which are predicated on what has always been to continue to be without interference would appear to be the enemy of youth.  At least to a young thinker.

My open advice to all groups is to engage the young, not seek ways to cage them. They are not seeking your permission to have a voice, they are informing you that if you have a problem with them having a voice then there will be a problem.

The rift between the establishment used to have all people under their yolk and the emerging generations’ need to matter on their own terms will only grow, because those in power are convinced that dissent is seasonal and within their capacity to contain.

I wish them luck. And remind them of my words later when they fail.

Crossroads of life

Still, a thought for the student leaders in Universiti Malaya.

Frank Slade continues his diatribe against the system, railing on that he too had come to many crossroads in his life, and how he had taking the wrong turns knowingly because the right ones were too damn hard.

He said Charlie was choosing the right ones, the ones with principle, which will eventually lead to character.  He asked the disciplinary committee to embrace his conviction because one day they will be proud of him.

It’s true really. One day Universiti Malaya — and other universities here too — will be proud of their most vocal and independent minded students.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.