The autonomy to think

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Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman - Photograph: rage.com.my

Universities should stop playing nanny to the extent of instructing students about what they should think and what is bad for them, implores Mustafa K Anuar.

The barring ― by three universities ― of Asian top debater Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman from giving talks on issues of public importance was very revealing.

It makes many of us wonder whether local universities in general are more inclined to mock the noble notion of freedom of expression and ideas and the intellectual development of their students.

This is because the topics that Syed Saddiq was going to speak about ― Palestinians and the Rohingyas and volunteerism among the youth ― are surely things that should matter to and would interest students.

But Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh instead insisted that local universities have “the autonomy to allow or disallow any individual from taking part in any of the programmes organised on their premises”.

This is disingenuous for surely the autonomy that is supposedly ordained by the ministry to the universities is not meant to curb students from discussing current issues of national and international import.

Besides, even if it is true that the universities have this so-called autonomy, their higher officials are likely to take the cue from the federal government before making decisions especially when it comes to matters that are considered “sensitive” (to the ruling party). And under the present political climate, this cue is not so difficult to detect by these officials – to do the “right thing”.

Saddiq is known to be critical of the Najib administration, particularly with regard to the way it has been handling 1MDB. And given the overbearing “sensitivity” of the federal government over this matter, it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the final-year student of the International Islamic University of Malaysia was barred three times from doing something that he’s recognised for in Asia, ie public speaking and debating.

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That is why it rings hollow when Idris claimed that the universities were exercising their autonomy when they barred Saddiq from speaking. It has really got to do with political expediency.

It is regretful that many of the leaders of our local universities tend to blindly ape the behaviour of certain government ministers. These universities should not ban ideas that are critical of the status quo the way the government bans publications or block websites and news portals that they don’t like.

If the bone of contention for the universities concerned is Saddiq’s critical stand on the 1MDB scandal, then it is incumbent upon the former to allow him to debate the issue in a manner that befits an institution of higher learning, ie a forum. On this platform, he can debate with those who are opposed to his position on 1MDB.

Such a forum would benefit especially students who would like to listen to the different opinions on the 1MDB scandal. After all, many of these students have already been fed with the viewpoint of the federal government through the 1MDB booklets that have been freely distributed on various campuses.

At the very least, students would be able to learn a thing or two about the art of public speaking from Saddiq’s verbal performance.

To deny Saddiq the opportunity to air his views on campus is indeed to exercise a form of censorship that is already so rampant these days in the larger society. You don’t build an intellectual tradition on campus by proscribing competing ideas. It is so antithetical to the notion of scholarship.

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One of the setbacks that emerge from this culture of banning in universities is that forums and debates that are thought-provoking are mostly held these days outside the universities and organised by civil society groups and think-tanks.

It appears that some universities instead tend to devote their time on punitive measures against students who want to exercise their rights as young adults and conscientious students.

It is pathetic that, for instance, certain students were hauled up and threatened with disciplinary action by university authorities simply because they protested against the university administration about, say, interrupted water supply and a quota for internet use on campus. These students should be allowed to speak up with confidence, like debater Saddiq, in their quest to seek justice and fairness.

Autonomy on campus should also encompass freedom for students to organise activities on their own, such as debates and dialogues. Universities, particularly the student affairs department, shouldn’t play a role that dents the enthusiasm, resourcefulness and intellectual freedom of students. And this department should also not be concerned about something as mundane and undignified as monitoring the wording and length of a student election poster.

Furthermore, sections of the local universities should stop playing nanny to such an extent as to instruct students about what they should think and what is bad for them. You can only hold the hands of the students up to a point.

The future of Malaysia requires a young generation that is reflective, resourceful and critical, and not easily herded by unscrupulous leaders in society, including politicians from both sides of the political divide.

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Like Saddiq, university students should be exposed to and concerned about larger issues such as corruption, social injustice, freedom, human rights, environmental degradation, materialism, gender inequality, racism, religious extremism and bigotry.

These students need not only diplomas for eventual employment, but also a degree of social consciousness.

Source: The Malay Mail Online

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