Student activists should work for common good

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It is by accepting what is good and taking an activist role to expose what is wrong that students will enhance their credibility as a third force in this country, writes Ronald Benjamin.

Let us emulate the courage of the young University of Malaya scholars - Photograph: KennKC/Twitter
Let us emulate the courage of the young University of Malaya scholars – Photograph: KennKC/Twitter

A report from an online news portal Malaysian insider titled ‘Student activists want to reclaim the third force’ is a welcome development.

What makes this struggle unique as stated is that they are from different families, faiths, and ethnic groups but share a common belief that Malaysian students need to reclaim their role as a third force in civil society. It is is not just about reclaiming their role as a third force but also reclaiming the broader aspiration of a multi-ethnic Malaysia for social justice.

University authorities should acknowledge such activism by helping students to create a balance between focusing on their respective areas of studies and political activism for the common good of the country. Punishing students is not the way forward, but a regressive step that would damage the credibility of University Malaya; it will be seen as intolerant to diverse intellectual narratives.

Critical and creative thinking does not come from a narrow dimension of knowledge or blind loyalty; it comes from synthesis rooted in a broader spectrum of empirical knowledge and experience.

At present, there appears to be a tendency among the dominant ruling elites to divert the attention of the people from real issues that are effecting the nation with ethno-religious issues and the foreign bogeyman. The opposition coalition, for its part, lacks cohesive strength to bring about real change in the country. A grassroots struggle that speaks out for ordinary people has become essential.

As a strong supporter of student activism, I would like to share key principles that are vital for student activism to bear fruit.

First, it is vital for student activists to love God and humanity in a way that goes beyond rigid and narrow ideologies. The love for God and humanity must transcend any ethno-religious ideology that sees things in black and white or in a Malaysian context as Malay versus non-Malay issues.

This would require solidarity with the poor and the marginalised from all ethnic groups. It would mean tackling issues from the given reality instead of trying to interpret issues from one’s ideological belief system. It would help in coming up with creative solutions to societal problems.

For example, it is simplistic to say that that the creation of an Islamic state would reduce or prevent crime. The root cause could be much deeper such as the gap between the status of self-righteous religious leaders and the poorer masses. The religious elites who lecture on religious dos and don’ts might not understand the true nature of poverty because they are obsessed with a legalistic religious ideology that limits the love of God.

Engaging with the marginalised with compassion and understanding the personal, social, and economic dimension of their lives would give one some understanding of how to reduce crime.

It is the same when it comes to the rich who are involved in the crime of plundering the nation’s resources. One has to study the type of economic system that provides the conditions for greed which is derived from the collaboration between politicians and business people with a global dimension. Such greed and plundering goes against the principles of the love of God and one’s neighbour.

Second, students need to have the inner freedom to distinguish between right and wrong. Some politicians might share a similar struggle for social justice but employ the wrong means to achieve their end.

For example, there could be contradictions such as speaking about a people’s economy but at the same time supporting an economic system that contains the root cause of social injustice.

Politicians who share similar political views with students might condemn nepotism but at the same time practise such a culture in their political organisation.

Religious sentiments could sometimes be used in a multiethnic society to divert people from understanding the common suffering of all ethnic groups.

The inner freedom to distinguish right and wrong in these areas is therefore vital.

Third, students need to acquire wisdom to deal with societal issues. Wisdom means the ability to view one another objectively. The ability to see goodness in others even though they do not share one’s political approach is vital for a harmonious society.

It is by accepting what is good and taking an activist role to expose what is wrong that students will enhance their credibility as a third force in this country. Love, inner freedom, and wisdom beyond ideology therefore should be the basis for students to reclaim their voice as a third force.

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