Abdullah won't budge on student politics ban, despite review

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2006, 12:00am

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has been behind many progressive moves in Malaysian society, but one traditional taboo stubbornly refuses to wither - mixing politics with campus life.

Undergraduates are strictly barred from involvement in politics - either as members of political parties or from taking part in any political activities.

The law is so all-encompassing that students need to obtain written permission to even possess a loudhailer.

The act prohibits them from doing anything 'which may be construed as expressing support, sympathy or opposition to any political party.'

Undergraduates are fined, suspended or expelled for breaking this law, which has been blamed for churning out 'timid and passive' graduates lacking in critical thinking.

Two years ago, Mr Abdullah ordered a review of the University and Colleges Act (1971).

After months of study and debate the government announced the university restrictions would be partially eased.

However the undergraduate ban against politics will remain.

'The students focus should be on studies and nothing else,' said Higher Education minister Mustapa Mohamed.

'It is a big letdown,' said Chang Lih Kang, a former student leader who is now co-ordinator with Suaram, a leading human rights organisation. 'The constitution guarantees freedom, but the universities take it away.'

The government has a deep-rooted fear of student politics after student protests rocked the country in the 1960s and 1970s, and helped to remove one prime minister.

Opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim led one student protest in 1974 over rural poverty that led to mass arrest and tightening the law.

Despite the law, some undergraduates covertly organise protests and take part in rallies. When discovered they are either suspended or expelled, as happened to six undergraduates in 2004.

In 2005 and this year, about a dozen students were put on trial for distributing leaflets and making press statements demanding campus freedom.

Going by their statements in local media, university vice-chancellors appear at the forefront of opposition to student politics.

'It is the duty of an undergraduate to acquire knowledge, soft skills and learn to work in teams. If they are allowed to join political parties they will be spending most of their valuable time demonstrating,' vice-chancellor Rafiah Salim, of University Malaya, told the New Straits Times daily last week.

'There are many other activities students can do besides politics,' she said echoing the views of most of the vice-chancellors of the country's 17 public universities.

Various student bodies, lawmakers and human rights association are urging the government to lift the ban.

'University authorities must nurture a vibrant, intellectual culture that promotes creative and critical thinking,' said P. Ramakrishnan, president of Aliran, a social reform movement. 'A silent culture is not a healthy culture in any institution of higher education.'