The recent conviction of Wong Yan Ke by the Magistrates’ Court for remarks he made at a convocation of the University of Malaya in 2020 is disturbing for many reasons.
It is, of course, essential to maintain a respectful environment within academic institutions.
However, we believe that the decision to prosecute the student rather than addressing the matter through university disciplinary rules is questionable.
It raises important questions about the role of universities in shaping the future of our society and the need to preserve their autonomy in dealing with such matters.
First, it is vital to acknowledge the importance of freedom of expression within educational institutions. Universities are the crucible for critical thinking and intellectual growth.
They are places where students must be encouraged to challenge existing norms and engage in thoughtful discussions on a wide range of issues.
The very foundation of these institutions is that they allow for different and conflicting viewpoints and have a high level of tolerance for diverse opinions.
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Rather than retarding differences, they owe a commitment to the development of individuals who can address complex societal challenges.
The decision to prosecute the student for expressing his views on the stage, however, sends a worrying message about the state of academic freedom in Malaysia.
While it is understandable that there should be certain limitations on speech to maintain decorum, it is crucial to distinguish between remarks that genuinely threaten the safety and wellbeing of others and those that merely express dissenting opinions.
It is difficult to imagine how Wong’s conduct would have provoked a breach of the peace, whether immediately, during the convocation or afterwards on the grounds of the university.
Rather than prosecuting them, universities should take pride in students who are willing to express dissenting opinions.
Such students are a testament to the effectiveness of the educational process They have been empowered to think critically and voice their concerns about issues that matter to them.
It is through the diversity of thought and opinion that a university’s true strength is revealed. Encouraging students to express dissent fosters a culture of intellectual curiosity and open dialogue.
It enables the university to produce graduates who are unafraid to engage in constructive debate, challenge the status quo and contribute meaningfully to society.
Universities exist for students. Their primary duty is to protect their students and create a supportive environment for their growth and development.
Legal prosecution under criminal laws should be a last resort, especially when dealing with matters that could be addressed through internal disciplinary procedures.
Instead of resorting to punitive measures, universities should take the opportunity to educate, guide and mentor students who express dissent inappropriately.
By doing so, universities can fulfil their commitment to nurturing responsible and ethical individuals while simultaneously preserving the sanctity of academic freedom.
The legal system should not be the first recourse. It should be the exception, when all other alternatives have been exhausted.
University administrators must not exist to bludgeon students into submitting to archaic and questionable notions of order and discipline.
Their aim surely must be to maintain trust and goodwill between the institution and its student body. – Gerak