There’s simply no way of overstating the important role that young people play in affecting change in society. The sooner we acknowledge this the better we will become as a country, writes Azmil Tayeb.
In my previous incarnation as a student in the United States, I occasionally attended gatherings at the Malaysian Embassy and consulate offices, some of which were hosted to receive various ministers and other high-ranking government officials.
In addition to being stuffed with delicious home-made Malaysian food — the main reason why I think most of us were there — we were also fed with the exhortations that we were not supposed to get involved in politics, not to pay any attention to the political issues currently brewing in Malaysia, and instead to solely focus on our studies.
Don’t sweat your innocent, highly impressionable minds with all these slanders and negativities you hear from home, said the avuncular minister. The time will come soon enough for you to get involved and subsequently enjoy the experience of being bashed senseless in the head by the FRU.
Okay, the minister didn’t say that last part. But the point I’m trying make here is that there’s no better moment to assume a proactive role in the society than during this unique window of time and place occupied by these so-called innocent, highly impressionable minds.
The recent “controversy” concerning the lowering of the PM’s banner at PWTC by the students and the alleged assault on student activists at UPSI on New Year’s Day by the police brings to light the familiar issue of whether Malaysian students should be allowed to get involved in politics, particularly via protests and other acts of civil disobedience.
For me, it’s not the question of if, but why the rights of these young people must be protected and not abridged, and how do we as a country that claims to be democratic accommodate the needs of this very important segment of the society.
Here are the reasons why it is imperative upon the powers-that-be to allow the students the freedom to express their beliefs and grievances, and for the woefully crafted laws that impede on this right to be revised or abolished.
Even with a cursory grasp of historical knowledge, one should be able to detect at least one universal tie that binds most prominent figures throughout history: they started young. We don’t have to look far beyond our regional shores for examples. Colonial Malaya was full of student activists agitating against the British, one of which is the former prime minister and Umno’s very own Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The site of the recent bloody confrontation, UPSI, or formerly known as Sultan Idris Training College for Malay Teachers (SITC), was called the “hotbed of Malay nationalism” (according to the government’s own high school history curriculum), which gave birth to nationalist figures such as Ibrahim Yaacob and Hassan Manan. This delicious irony was certainly lost on the authorities when they decided to crack down on the student protesters there.
Some of the current figures in Malaysian politics can definitively trace their career back to student activism, namely Anwar Ibrahim and Ibrahim Ali. Elsewhere in the region, there were also other student activists-cum-nationalist figures such as Sukarno, Hatta and Tan Malaka in Indonesia; Jose Rizal in the Philippines; and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, to name but a few.
I’m sure there were conservative people back then, same as now, who advised these figures not to waste their time as rabble rousers and just focus on their studies. Where would Malaysia and the other countries be now had these former student activists heeded the advice of their risk-averse elders of that bygone era?
What, then, is the appropriate age to get involved in politics? The voting age in Malaysia is 21, which is itself an anomaly among functioning democracies around the world. Even the shining beacons of democracy such as Myanmar, China and Zimbabwe set their population’s voting age at 18.
It’s like saying the young Malaysians under this superficial age limit are incapable of thinking for themselves and taking charge of their own destiny. They are constantly told that they should not be paying attention to what’s going in the society and they need to simply walk around encased in a transparent force field to better deflect these “corrupting” influences.
Of course, this is the kind of scenario one can only find in Steven Spielberg’s movies or in the fertile imagination of our politicians and technocrats. Various studies have been done to refute this preposterous claim (for example, refer to Niemi & Sobieszek, 1977). Political socialisation starts at a young age and continues throughout a person’s a life. To say that young people cannot get involved in politics before they reach this glorified age is simply the height of arrogance and flies in the face of established convention.
Some of the detractors also seem to forget that not all under 21 are students. In fact, quite a sizeable number of them are regular working people, some already have families of their own. Some are even in the police force and the military. It’s more or less telling them that it’s perfectly okay to die for their country but heaven forbid that they should participate in politics before they reach the ripe age of 21.
As someone who teaches political science, I always encourage my students to make the connection between theory and practice. We discuss and debate various case studies around the world to better illustrate theories on democracy, elections, civil society, revolution and others. It certainly helps to deepen their understanding (and mine) of these contested concepts and theories.
But what takes learning to a whole new level is to experience these classroom materials first-hand, meaning to actively participate in society and see for themselves these concepts and theories at work.
I’m not one for clichés but the oft-cited “life is the best teacher” certainly rings true in this context. University education should not only prepare students for working life but also mould them into well-rounded citizens who are very much invested in their society, and combining lecture notes and extracurricular activism is the best way to accomplish this.
Young people’s involvement in politics, particularly students, is an irrevocable part of life. Give me one example in history when young people are not part of social change and I will sell you a Beemer for the price of a Kancil. It just never happens.
Just look around us today. Who are the people that toppled the authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia? The people who brought down Suharto in Indonesia and Marcos in the Philippines? There’s simply no way of overstating the important role that young people play in affecting change in society.
The sooner we acknowledge this the better we will become as a country.