In 2011, four students from a Malaysian public university were on their way to a political rally held during a campaign trail of a by-election. Mid-journey, police stopped their car for possessing paraphernalia belonging to an opposition party. While the police eventually allowed the students to walk free, the university hauled them up before a disciplinary panel that found them guilty of participating in a pro-opposition event.
The students fought all the way to the appellate court and won a landmark decision – a 2-1 ruling vindicated the four by deeming the university’s decision to charge them for merely attending a political rally as unconstitutional. One of the esteemed judges also called the facts of their case an “utter absurdity”.
Rights groups and observers felt the Court of Appeal’s decision ushered in a new era for free speech in Malaysia, a country known for its constriction of freedom of expression despite having a Federal Constitution that enshrines it. It gave student leaders and human rights advocates the legal ammunition to oppose any attempt by the authorities to use the law against anti-establishment students.
Unfortunately, it did not last. The once “reform-minded” Prime Minister Najib Razak has all but liberal reforms on his mind these days. Embroiled in the biggest corruption scandal the country has ever seen, his administration had and continues to clamp down on those who voice out against his alleged involvement.
Smaller fries, like students, are not excluded from these punitive measures. And they stand to lose a lot more.
“Students Want Answers”, “1MDB, We Want Answers”
The 1MDB corruption saga is a mind-boggling corporate puzzle to say the least. Investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) indicate that Najib purportedly received US$700 million of stolen money from 1 Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), a state investment arm he oversaw.
But the essence of it is as simple as the name of the U.S. DoJ.’s action is obvious – in its Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, the DoJ seeks to recover US$1 billion in assets associated with an international conspiracy to launder funds misappropriated from 1MDB.
Najib has vehemently denied all charges. The current Attorney General, whom he appointed after the predecessor was controversially removed in the midst of his investigation into the 1MDB fiasco, cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the public remains unconvinced. So the Najib administration went on an all-out public relations blitz in an effort to reverse the negative public perception, holding town hall meetings (with vetted audience, reportedly), and radio interviews with top government officials and the chief executive of 1MDB, Arul Kanda Kandasamy.
And since young voters make up almost half of the electorate, the government ensured that the PR campaign reached university campuses. Naturally, the nation’s top university, University of Malaya (UM), was picked.
The meeting failed to gain traction. The turnout was poor. But the meeting was a heated affair.
When 1MDB’s Arul Kanda refused to answer questions from a member of the university’s Association of New Youth (UMANY), they took out flimsy handmade posters with captions that read:
“1MDB We Want Answers”
“1MDB Jangan Spin (Don’t Twist Facts)”
“1MDB Pulangkan Duit Rakyat (Give Back the People’s Money)”
“Mahasiswa Mahukan Jawapan (Students Demand Answers)”
Similar to the fate that had befallen the four students who took on their university and later won, the UM administration issued a show-cause letter to the placard-wielding students and hauled them in for action. Their crime? Breaking a no-placard rule and “damaging and harming public and moral peace and safety”.
In their defence, the students cite their right to free speech enshrined in the Malaysian Federal Constitution and a 2014 precedent involving Barack Obama, who was the sitting U.S. president at the time.
Obama had made a historic visit to the UM campus for a town hall meeting organised by the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Talks were rife that the event would be heavily monitored to ensure no 1MDB questions were raised. But a few students managed to sneak in placards with messages that voiced opposition against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
The UM administration punished all those involved in the minor altercation. But thanks to support from the American Embassy that requested leniency for the students, based on their right for peaceful protest, the university dropped the charges.
UMANY is not optimistic that the same will happen with them. Ho Chi Yang, one of the students involved in the protest at the town hall meeting with 1MDB, said he is 99 percent convinced they will be found guilty if other precedents are of any guidance.
University as space for open discussion
But things weren’t always like this in Malaysia. In the 60s, UM was seen as the centre for radical student movements and saw many successful protests held within its vicinity, for matters even beyond student welfare. Unlike today, students then were allowed to join political parties, even socialist ones. In a country that vilifies the left, this was a huge deal.
All that changed in 1971, however, when Malaysia, through the University and University Colleges Act, instituted a sweeping ban barring all students from joining any political party, in or outside the university. In 2008, the government, in an attempt to portray itself as reformist, relaxed the notorious legislation, but only to allow students to join non-political societies outside campus.
Students were unfazed. Many called the new policy a half-baked move that could hardly spur free and critical debates within campuses.
International human rights groups have also taken Malaysia to task over its dismal overall human rights record and continued repression of free speech. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has commented on the matter, saying: “Students should not be penalized for peaceful speech under the guise of enforcing school discipline.”
But should universities be opened to partisan politics?
It depends on which side of the fence you are on. For the Malaysian government, politics is deemed as a hindrance to academic excellence. The Malaysian prime minister calls free speech and human rights a threat to Muslim identity while the Royal Malaysian Police have arrested and held without trial a female activist, the leader of a coalition of NGOs for free and fair elections, under an anti-terrorism law that permits detention without charge.
On the opposite side of the fence, advocates of free speech believe limits on expression are detrimental to good policy-making.
One of them, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, cites three classic time-honored arguments on the benefits of free speech: First, free speech helps us live with diversity in a connected world. Second, if we do not possess all the facts and hear all alternatives, how can we make wise policy choices? Lastly, it helps us seek for truth.
The poster-holding students at the 1MDB town hall meeting wanted to achieve these very same ideals. And for that, they face an internal disciplinary panel at their university this February 24th, which could see them being expelled in the worst-case scenario. If expelled, their degrees will be forfeited, with grave implications for their academic and professional careers.
Malaysia is not the only country in Southeast Asia with a penchant for stifling students’ political expression. The problem spreads region-wide.
As its citizens become increasingly exposed to critical thinking, thanks to greater access to information ushered in by rapid urbanisation and the Internet, many have developed an appetite for questioning the status quo. But with it comes increased attempts by their respective governments to tighten control, even through force and violence.
Thus, when Asian students carry out symbolic and peaceful demonstrations, even small-scale ones, they are often met with excessive force, arrests, and charges.
In Burma (Myanmar), student protesters were arrested and harassed for marching against a new law limiting academic freedom in March 2015. Phyoe Phyoe Aung, who led the All Burma Federation of Student Unions was imprisoned. She was released in April last year, but the repressive legislation she was protesting against remains. Repressive laws such as the Unlawful Association Act and Telecommunications Act were also maintained despite the new government’s promise to improve civil liberties.
And barely a month after Phyoe Phyoe Aung’s release, more student leaders were arrested during an interfaith peace walk in Rangoon.
In Thailand, the military government remains intolerant against dissent and the lèse majesté (sedition) law continues to put a damper on the “Land of Smiles”. Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code broadly criminalises any material deemed offensive to Thai royalty. In an ugly example, Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa was arrested for sharing a BBC Thai article about the new Thai King, King Maha Vajiralongkorn last month. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Malaysia’s UMANY believes the region’s universities and its students stand to lose more than just incarcerated dissidents – if the region follows this trajectory, the biggest effect will be the downfall of its prestigious universities.
“Academic freedom will be lost. Restrictions on research, e.g. topics of research, will affect the quality of students,” Ho said.
His peer and current president of UMANY, Kon Hua En, believes “the long term effect will be on students’ mentality”.
However, opponents of free speech believe it is a fair price to pay for economic prosperity. Singapore, the region’s poster boy for economic success, is one of them.
But economic and human development are intertwined and the one cannot succeed without the other, Ho argues. Pointing to Singapore and China, Ho claimed their focus on economic development “neglects the growth of human potential”.
“If we disregard academic freedom, the public will just be robots and cannot think critically and creatively,” he added.
Kon, on the other hand, partially agreed with free speech’s critics that free expression could be a double edged sword for democracy, in a sense that it could lead to more bickering and thus, less work done. But the student leader believes that free speech as a right is there for a reason: it acts as a “check and balance and to prevent the abuse of power”.
Perhaps that is what these governments are most afraid of.