Voting at 18 – but students still suppressed on campus

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What is the point of lowering the minimum voting age to 18 when students are not able to express themselves freely on campus issues, wonders Nah Yan Sheng.

Glassy eyed, marching under the sun, wearing the same blue shirts with the emblem “Recruits”, university students are herded from one assembly to another.

Posters with an endless list of stern words face students at every corner on campus. During these assemblies, the “recruits” sit restlessly, some drowsily, listening to lengthy speeches, read with a commanding voice:

“Mahasiswa-mahasiswi, tahniah kepaada semua kerana berjaya memasuki universiti…. Kita berjaya mencapai tempat … dalam universiti ranking…. Kejayaan universiti dan anda sendiri adalah di atas tangan anda. Belajar bersunguh-bersunguh, dan jangan dipengaruhi oleh unsur-unsur lain.”

The same old narrative.

Youth empowerment was the latest buzzword leading up to the passing of a parliamentary bill to amend the Federal Constitution to lower the voting age to 18.

Despite the passing the bill, vibrant youth activism unfortunately remains just a pipe dream. Public universities still believe in a heavy-handed, top-down approach to student affairs.

In all pubic universities, students elect fellow students to students’ representative councils annually. Prior to the 2018 general election, student representatives were not allowed to attend senate meetings to represent students’ interests.

Students’ representative councils do not have the authority to approve club activities. Instead the power lies in the hands of the universities’ student affairs departments.

These departments have absolute power to disband any students’ body and punish students, under the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) and university disciplinary rules.

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Malaysians are no strangers to the vague wording of laws that can be easily abused to persecute dissenters. Phrases such as “detrimental or prejudicial to the interests, well being or good name of University … or to public order, safety or security, morally, decency or discipline” are often cited by universities to punish legitimate acts of civil disobedience such as boycotts, sit-in protests, street demonstrations, the circulation of documents and press conferences.

Even worse, we students can be punished for innocent acts. Safwan Shamsuddin, a student activist leader from the University of Malaya, was completely baffled by his sentence in 2014: “I was suspended just for using a loudspeaker. What kind of stupid law was that?”

Indeed, according to Rule 10(1) of University of Malaya (Discipline of Students), 1999, students can be punished for failing to get the prior approval of the vice-chancellor to possess and use public broadcasting equipment.

What has happened to these university policies since the last general election? Students are given a chance to conduct campus elections. Only Section 15(2)(c) of the UUCA has been amended to allow students’ participation in political activity within the campus.

Several universities such as University Malaysia Sabah and the International Islamic University Malaysia have announced the establishment of student unions, promising greater freedom and autonomy in students’ self-governance.

Malaysian youths applaud the recent effort to expand the democratic space within campus, but we are still not fully convinced. Let me tell you why.

Arbitrary punishment for simply expressing dissatisfaction with the university is still possible because non-political activities such as protesting against fee hikes are not legally protected.

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Instances such as fee revisions without prior consultation with the students’ representative council reflect persisting master-servant power dynamics.

The power of newly established student unions is largely at the whims of the universities as no legal framework is in place to protect the institutional power of student unions.

A much larger stumbling block is the mantra “the university is always right”, which runs deep within the university management board, from the vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellor, faculty dean, hostel chief down to hostel management staff.

The thinking is that dissenting students need to be put in their place through bureaucratic red tape, stringent campus rules, warning memos and a dismissive demeanour. Here, subservience is virtue; disobedience is vice.

What is the point of encouraging youths to participate in national political discourse when we are not able to express ourselves freely and be taken seriously on campus issues?

We are expected to hold the government of the day accountable through the democratic process; yet we are not able to fight when the university violates our own rights and interests.

Let students have a say in their bread-and-butter issues, and the youths will reciprocate with fresh enthusiasm in nation-building.

Nah Yan Sheng is a third-year student in industrial biology at a local university. He recently participated in an Aliran writers’ workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”, where he wrote this piece.

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