How Malaysia’s top university blundered by swatting a protester

A little dose of humility in addressing students as equals would not go amiss, writes Nah Yan Sheng.

Immediately after receiving his graduation scroll during the convocation ceremony at the University of Malaysia, Wong Yan Ke staged a solo protest against the vice-chancellor for his speech at the Malay Dignity Congress.

He shouted, “Ini Tanah Malaysia!” while holding a placard that read: “Tolak Rasis. Undur VC” (Reject Racists. Resign, VC).

In response, the university lodged a police report and condemned Wong’s act for not respecting the ceremony and disrupting protocol and the smooth running of the event. The act, the university added, “tarnished the good name” of the university, the graduates and the university staff.

The university said it “always supports the principle of freedom of expression. Even so, as an institute of higher learning that is entrusted to educate the future generation, we also believe that any action based on such principles must be carried out at the right time and place.” 

The university could have engaged with any dissident group in open dialogue on camera. It could have written a conciliatory statement. Instead, it chose to issue a typical statement, talking down to the graduate as if his action was just a rebellious juvenile act.

Resorting to overused phrases such as “tarnished the good name” (of the university) is disingenuous. Wong’s protest targeted the vice-chancellor alone. Why did the university feel compelled to lump the whole institution, staff and graduates together and pose as their defender?

The heavy-handed approach and arrogant tone in dealing with dissent reflects badly on the image of the university as an intellectual institution.

To say Wong “disrupted protocol and smooth running (of the event)” is an exaggeration. The whole incident, at most, slowed down the ceremony by two minutes.

The university’s statement warrants a lengthier rebuttal because it reflects a serious flaw in the inner workings of a public university.

Phrases such as “right time and right place”, “internal feedback mechanism”, and “mature and rational way” have been rhetorically used to reply to any public display of students’ dissent.

Such responses imply that a student representative body or students’ union is legally on an equal footing with the university in dealing with student affairs – which is simply dishonest.

Universities have absolute power to ignore and overrule any students’ referendum. Students’ collective bargaining power is often greatly repressed under the threat of disbandment, suspension and expulsion. Universities fully exploit their unchecked power in closed-door negotiations to their advantage.

The only way for students to level the playing field is to gain public support.

This time, University of Malaya could not take any disciplinary action against Wong as usual, because having graduated, he is now a “free man”. But that did not stop the university from lodging a police report, hoping for “appropriate action”.

Wong’s action was not an impulsive act. It was a deliberate attempt to pressure the university to address the issue of the vice-chancellor’s speech at the Malay Dignity Congress on 6 October.

Wong Yan Ke Facebook

The university simply could not wrap its head around the idea that a single student could muster enough courage to challenge its narrative in public.

The unexpected victory of Pakatan Harapan against all odds has inspired a new crop of youth leaders, more unyielding, more determined and more willing to engage inlong-term struggle. The days when a vice-chancellor could single-handedly crack down on student dissent are over. The harsher the crackdown, the more determined the dissidents carry on.

To all vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and faculty deans, “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men.”

It is time to put aside your egos and face the students, especially the dissidents, and address them as your equals. If you cannot cope with any open criticism and public shaming for your alleged act of incompetence or abuse of power, you are not fit for high-level leadership positions in the civil service.

Great power comes with public scrutiny, I am sure you know that.

Nah Yan Sheng is a fourth-year student in a public university. He wishes to articulate youth grievances while dispelling social myths on youth issues through his writings. He recently attended an Aliran writer’s workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”.

Thanks for dropping by! The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

Our voluntary writers work hard to keep these articles free for all to read. But we do need funds to support our struggle for Justice, Freedom and Solidarity. To maintain our editorial independence, we do not carry any advertisements; nor do we accept funding from dubious sources. If everyone reading this was to make a donation, our fundraising target for the year would be achieved within a week. So please consider making a donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB Bank account number 8004240948.
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
22 Oct 2019 4.48pm

Well said Nan.Keep reading on.Let’s put a stop to the vitriol.Truth in God must be faced.MALAYSIAN have rights as citizens. Right, constitutionally based rules must be followed by ALL.Public universities are funded by tax payers money.Accountability to the public-ALL MALAYSIANS, is paramount.Zainal Kling, VCS need to be ‘reeducated’. People do wrong.It is crucial Ms-Bumis, Dr.M has observed often,need to rethink their positions. No more handouts. It will great for your following generations, ‘entitlement MENTALITY’ is ‘educated’ out of one’s psyche.’OTHERS’-minorities,not the majority, had to ‘endure’ ‘pushed-aside’ policies.Be deserving.Professors plagiarise.Eng horrendous.Equality as by SPIRIT of loving humanity.NOT position,rank.

Lim Heng Hin
18 Oct 2019 1.39pm

Top Uni? So, petty and indulging in racism with the VC at the helm? It’s making a mockery of tertiary education to the world.

Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
18 Oct 2019 10.01am

Sack the Minister of Education. Sack all the VCs of the 4 public universities concerned. They don’t deserve to keep their offices. Pakatan Harapan has not done what its Election Manifesto
proclaimed. Our tertiary education has been compromised for the past 20 over years. They are no longer intellectual centres for the country and the people. They do not lead the nation, they do not advise the nation what is good for the nation. They all ‘kowtow’ to their political leaders who are all one-sided, and not truly Malaysian. They made sure that they keep their jobs by pandering to the powers that be.

Chin Tu Lan
18 Oct 2019 4.49am

Good cartoon by Zunar, as always.

Arichantheran Mvsivagnanam
18 Oct 2019 1.01am

….this action by d university must b brought to d attention of univs overseas!! …student power world wide must engage n fight this kind of bullying by d authorities!!!

Azul Jon
17 Oct 2019 10.24pm

Siswazah yang sewel dan dot4x

20 Oct 2019 7.43am
Reply to  Azul Jon

Stupid student.

Pau Kar Liau
17 Oct 2019 10.06pm

The VC feel insulted after a student voiced out his racist speech. Sounds ironic to me. If you intentionally act like an idiot, then you deserved to be call one. Why feel insulted?

Melanie Akm
17 Oct 2019 9.47pm

Sadly, from the turn of events, clearly they do not appreciate and favor such quality students…We need more people speaking out. This country is not overrun with rebels and free thinkers. It’s overrun with sheep and conformists.

It’s not unpatriotic to denounce an injustice committed on our behalf, perhaps it’s the most patriotic thing we can do.
Yes, you can make a difference! You can speak on behalf of those who are voiceless.Truth CANNOT, MUST NOT AND SHOULD NOT be SILENCED! .

Theres Chin
17 Oct 2019 8.59pm

Bravo! You wrote well – hopefully the so called VC can speak with humility and coherently – then again, the police report.. an intention to intimidate and BULLY the student? The day one demands dignity is the moment he lost the world’s respect for it exposed the hollowness of his character and the narrowness of his mind, a mind unwilling to see beyond is not fit to lead what more an institution of the academy.

Ong Lay Imm
17 Oct 2019 9.54pm
Reply to  Theres Chin

Theres Chin, well said!

Sugu SK
18 Oct 2019 1.15am
Reply to  Theres Chin

Kamal Badri its not the supporting issue,its about the VC of top U.Really sad to see this all.Its impassible our education level shift to better one.

Richard Ng Ting Woong
17 Oct 2019 8.25pm

To me it’s helm by incompetent fools