Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives a special lecture at the Diet Building in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Nearly every major revolution in the post-Enlightenment age began in lecture halls. From the Insurrection Républicaine à Paris of 1832 to the grim Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, history was written by vociferous scholars, with half their minds on their nation’s destiny and the other half on next week’s examinations.

Malaysia has never seen an outright revolution. Throughout the course of the country’s history, there have been wars, protests, and civil strife, but never a revolution.

Until now.

And the harbinger of this glorious new age was none other than young students – the mahasiswa and mahasiswi – of its universities.

On May 9, 2018, an eventful date that will find a place alongside other momentous dates in Asian history, the 14th general elections of Malaysia ushered in a new age of liberation and promise. But while we Malaysians celebrate the new age, we must not let the transgressions of the past be left forgotten and unpunished.

When police arrested former prime minister Najib Razak on July 3 last year many were quick to forget how this seemingly impossible and stunning fall from grace started. Almost exactly two years prior to Najib’s arrest, on August 27, 2016, the bold spirit of one Anis Syafiqah gathered thousands of students in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. They demanded the resignation and arrest of Najib, because of credible information implicating him in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption saga.

Malaysian social media took off. The August sun blazed down on fresh young faces, grimly set with determination to make their dissatisfaction known to the world: that their prime minister was an embarrassment to the country and unfit to lead the nation.

Echoing the pink hats that dominated the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC, the brave women of Malaysian youth donned pink headscarves. The scene was at once exuberant and uneasy.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall had denied the students permission to gather at Dataran Merdeka – Independence Square – and there was a risk that the police would take action as the notice to gather under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 was considered invalid. The students knew that at any minute, a Federal Reserve Unit crew with their infamous red shields could start applying metal to flesh to force them to disperse.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The day ended with a classic display of street theater: effigies of former prime minister Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor were put behind bars in a mock prison.

However, while the students avoided a crackdown at the scene that day, many would later go on to face disciplinary proceedings and actions by their respective universities for their involvement in the protest.

When pictures of police taking Najib into custody graced the screens of every television set in the country, it was poetic justice: The very students Najib’s Barisan Nasional apparatchik had spent years persecuting under the Akta Universiti dan Kolej Universiti 1971, or Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU), for merely speaking their minds and participating in politics were now watching the all-too-familiar white mustache, pink lips, and golden spectacles being hauled before a judge in the Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex.

In court, Najib was given the privilege of donning one of his exquisitely tailored suits instead of the standard orange jumpsuit, looking as if he were attending a global summit or international trade talk. But expensive suits couldn’t save him. The resistance had finally worked. And this would not have been possible if it weren’t for the rallying, protesting, and marching of hordes of student activists over the years.

History of AUKU

To understand AUKU, we must understand its history and its intricate relationship with the country. On August 29, 1969, police forces stormed the Universiti Malaya campus to break up an anti-government demonstration, detaining several student leaders in the process. This sparked a scare in the federal government, which was still reeling from the May 13 racial riots that had shaken the nation only a few months earlier.

The authorities were worried that a scene similar to the 1968 Paris Riots would play out, in which massive riots wreaked havoc on the streets of Paris and even made president Charles de Gaulle flee the capital after students occupied the Sorbonne and declared it an autonomous “people’s university.” The following year, Malaysia formed the National Operations Council – an emergency body formed after the bloody racial riots of 1969 – which in turn established a Campus Investigative Committee in 1970. That committee recommended the enactment of a law regulating varsity student activities: AUKU.

For more than 45 years, AUKU reigned supreme over the lecture halls of Malaysian universities. While student activism flourished in other countries, the average Malaysian university student was a meek and quiet individual too afraid to voice dissent or too conditioned to maintain political silence.. The government made increasingly severe amendments to the AUKU, making it more powerful and all-encompassing in restricting students’ rights.

But not all Malaysian students accepted silence. In 1974, at the height of the student movement in Malaysia, Universiti Malaya suspended its Chinese Language Society, alleging that the society was “involved in communist activities.” It was an attempt to disempower students. That same year, the Baling Demonstrations occurred, propelling a then-unknown Anwar Ibrahim to national fame after he led student protests against poverty and hunger in the rubber-tapping community, resulting in his being imprisoned under the then Internal Security Act 1960 for 20 months without trial.

After decades of repression, two small victories were scored, two years apart. In 2010, four political-science students from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia successfully argued before the Putrajaya Court of Appeal that the prohibition on expressing support, sympathy, or opposition to a political party violated Article 10 (1) (a) of the federal constitution, which protects freedom of speech and expression. Judge Mohd Hishamudin Yunus, who presided over the case, said the prohibition in question “impedes the healthy development of the critical mind and original thoughts of students – objectives that seats of higher learning should strive to achieve.”

The judge went on to say: “Universities should be the breeding ground of reformers and thinkers, and not institutions to produce students trained as robots. Clearly the provision is not only counterproductive but repressive in nature.”

The very same fundamental freedoms are also guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among several other pertinent international human-rights treaties.

After that court decision, the government amended AUKU in 2012 – victory No 2 – allowing students to become members of political parties, and to express support, sympathy, or opposition to them, provided that universities’ boards of directors do not find the groups “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the university.” Still restrictively prohibitive, no doubt, but a glimmer of hope in a cavern of darkness. Even Najib was forced to admit that the amendment was timely, on the condition that there was to be “no politics on campus.”

Infertile ground

Najib’s phrase – “no politics on campus” – would later become the title of a 2018 Fortify Rights report, documenting ongoing violations of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association against university students in Malaysia.

So, what lies ahead? Should the students of Malaysia be expected to express themselves only outside the campus gates? Will the government continue to use insidious, vaguely worded provisions in the Discipline of Student Rules 1999, made in furtherance of AUKU, to continue to silence students and selected dissenters? Will outstanding cases of students punished for exercising free speech be nullified, and will students no longer need to endure arbitrary disciplinary proceedings? Or will the new government of Malaysia steer us toward a more progressive path where students are able to exercise their fundamental rights safely?

Despite all the recent positive political changes in Malaysia, the Malaysian university remains a sterile and infertile ground where political expression is frowned upon. But the university cannot, and should not, be separated from politics – not in Malaysia, and not anywhere. The ancient concept of Universitas – from the Latin, meaning “the whole, total, the universe, the world” – came from the idea of producing the world in miniature in order to prepare the young student for the study of the cosmos.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is leading many of the positive changes in Malaysia now, but he presided over the 1975, 1983 and 1996 amendments to AUKU during his tenures as both the minister of education and the fourth prime minister of Malaysia. More recently, last December, the House of Representatives passed an amendment bill to AUKU – lifting Section 15(2)(C) of the act to allow the discourse of political activities once again to thrive on university campus grounds – six months after the publication of a report I wrote with Fortify Rights, “No Politics on Campus,” exposing violations under AUKU.

However, certain provisions in AUKU and its accompanying regulations still allow university authorities to reign supreme in deeming what is suitable to the “interests and well-being of the university” as a caveat to campus free speech.

Will Mahathir use his current tenure as prime minister to undo past evils? Or will he stand by the system he helped create for the sake of – as the old Barisan Nasional mantra used to go – stability and certainty?

The time is ripe for an end to the old barriers to free expression in Malaysia. It is time for the new Pakatan Harapan government to amend or repeal AUKU and its accompanying regulations used to silent dissent. And it’s time for the government finally to commit to an exhaustive reform of our higher-education system, to make it fully autonomous and rights-respecting.

After all, this is the government Malaysians voted for, a government whose manifesto promises to “support a creative young generation that is free from oppression.”

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Henry Koh

Henry Koh is the former Malaysia human rights specialist at Fortify Rights and author of the report “No Politics on Campus”: Violations of the Rights to Freedom of Expression, Peaceful Assembly, and Association Against University Students in Malaysia. Follow him on Twitter @henrykoh45.

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