Open letter to first-year students at University of Malaya

University students must be bold enough to act as the conscience of society

I am Wong Yan Ke from the class of 2019.

I was also the former president of the University or Malaya Association of New Youth (Umany). I apologise for using this sort of method to meet and talk to you.

The incident which took place last Thursday in Dewan Tunku Canselor is likely still fresh in your minds. The University of Malaya Students’ Union had invited Prof Azmi Sharom and me to attend a discussion to start the new week.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at the entrance of the hall, campus security blocked me and claimed that the university had other arrangements.

Later, security and the student affairs department assigned more people to station themselves all over to ensure that I could not enter.

During this time, the students’ union attempted to negotiate with the university authority, but they were unsuccessful.

The authority remained obstinate, yet the students’ union refused to succumb. They defended the students’ rights to autonomy and freedom of speech, and they stood by my side.

After some struggles, the union finally brought me onto the stage through the back of the hall.

I initially expected that everything would go on smoothly from then, but after I had spoken for less than five minutes, the authority resorted to despicable acts again and forcefully cut off the sound system and then ushered the students back to their dorms.

A talk titled “Freedom of Speech on Campus” was ultimately suppressed by the top university in Malaysia, which is deeply ironic.

I believe that for most students, last Thursday’s commotion came as a culture shock. Whilst some found it interesting and exciting, others were shocked and didn’t know how to react.

However, this was indeed an excellent chance to spell out the contrast between one’s expectation of their ideal university and the reality.

Compared to other more advanced nations, our country’s universities are not free. On campus, freedom of speech is only afforded to voices favoured by the administration and does not extend to dissenters or the voices of the minority.

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This is to be blamed on the source of all evil – the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA).

In Malaysia, the vice-chancellor is appointed by the Ministry of Education, instead of through a democratic process involving scholars and academic personnel.

The purpose of the UUCA is to repress the freedom of students to organise movements and to erode the right of students’ councils to act autonomously.

The combination of these factors is what caused Thursday’s absurd incident in which the university authority was displeased with the guest speakers invited by the students’ council and so cut off the audio system, thus ending the academic forum.

They even threatened to take disciplinary action against the chair of the students’ council.

Why is the university so afraid of a discussion about freedom of speech?

From primary school to university, Malaysia has always implemented an authoritative system of education.

Students are not allowed to express criticism towards their teachers, school or the authority.

Those who have differing opinions are labelled as ‘bad students’, and the mistreatment they receive ranges from rejection and suppression to expulsion from campus.

The goal is to indoctrinate students, turning them into beings who do not think independently and who are indifferent towards politics, thereby preserving the power of the ruling class.

Take a look at history, whether local and overseas – students have always spearheaded social reform. Students steer society’s way of thinking, tear down old conventions, determine the new order and persuade the masses to join movements for reform.

For instance, in 1969 University of Malaya students wrote the ground-breaking and progressive “Student Manifesto 1969” which successfully influenced Malaysian voters in the third general election to refuse the government’s two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Meanwhile, in the US, students actively participated in democratic movements to pursue equality and put an end to racial segregation through non-violent civil disobedience.

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What the university truly fears is not me but the consciousness of students.

They are terrified of students being exposed to new perspectives.

They are terrified of students understanding their own personal rights and interests.

They worry that students will be bold enough to think and act critically, thus threatening the interests of those in power.

So what should I do as a freshman?

First, think. Thinking is our most fundamental ability as humans and also the process by which we realise ourselves.

Only through constant deliberation and relentless debates among ourselves, can we become individuals with free will and become fully autonomous.

Thus, even if the school or the authority repeatedly hinders the path, students should not give in easily.

Students have to unite and stand in solidarity with each other, because the moment we give up our fight, we give up our right to decide our own lives and we let ourselves be pushed around by others.

Second, join students’ movements and club activities. School itself is a form of communal living. Besides acquiring knowledge, undergraduates should seize the opportunity to develop new interests and skills.

Only through various experiments of living can we thoroughly understand ourselves and discover what kind of life and values are worth pursuing. Only then can we live our great, ideal lives.

Third, give back to society. People who can attend university are all considerably privileged in society.

Moreover, public universities are funded by taxpayers’ money, which is why we have a responsibility to give back to society, aid the underprivileged and promote social justice.

Fourth, carry out your civic responsibility. Since the Undi 18 legislative amendment (to reduce the minimum voting age from 21 to 18) was passed, your identity as a student and voter exists together. With that, students cannot use academics as an excuse for neglecting their civic obligation.

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Furthermore, as a fully fledged member of society, citizens should have self-awareness and realise their own civic responsibility and obligation.

Citizens should acknowledge their own shortcomings and ignorance, as well as be willing to educate themselves and strengthen their awareness of various issues.

They should dedicate time to comprehend basic political theories, improve their common knowledge and keep up with current affairs so that they can make informed decisions based on reality.

Besides that, citizens should think critically, assess the reality of society and imagine their ideal society.

Citizens should continually ponder and argue their stances, respond to the question of meaning with values, use rationality to examine whether certain values are reasonable and legitimate, and explore the importance of different values.

Citizens must also have the capability to act. In addition to voting in general elections, citizens should be able to rationally discuss public matters, bring about social reform, and pursue a fair and just society.

If you have a flair for writing, then influence others through the power of words; if you have artistic talent, then connect and resonate with people through music, theatre and other forms of expression.

There are a multitude of ways to create reform, and it is not just about fighting on the front line.

While attaining education, do not forget to serve the country; while serving the country, do not forget to be educated.

The University of Malaya was established for Malaysians. I hope that in the future, students do not surrender to the status quo, but have the courage to speak up, defend democracy and freedom, preserve their principles and the truth, and hold on tightly to their ideals.

University students must be bold enough to be critical, to become the eyes of our present society and to act as the conscience of society. – The Malay Mail

Wong Yan Ke is the former chairperson of Umany

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.
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Gram Massla
Gram Massla
21 Oct 2022 1.32am

The freedom to openly and candidly express ones’s thoughts should be a fundamental human right but it is not, even in the so-called “advanced” countries. In the US the First Amendment to the Constitution is being shredded and will ultimately be meaningless as legislations pile in to neuter its intent. Untouchable holy cows are being installed by the day. Those in control fear free speech and will continue to do so.