The pandemonium over the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU) has been rekindled yet again following International Islamic University Malaysia’s (UIA) decision to prohibit Deputy Minister of Higher Education Saifuddin Abdullah from holding his forum at the eleventh hour on Nov 21.
Only a month shy of UIA’s suspension its lecturer Prof Dr Aziz Bari for criticizing a decree made by the Selangor Sultan, the forum’s cancellation somewhat confirms that the federal government is willing to resort to suppressing academic freedom in order to attain tighter grip on power.
It’s obvious now that the ruling government have been smothering UIA and other local universities as well as academia. Incidentally, Nurul Izzah Anwar had said that UIA had her admission to university more than a decade ago due to “political considerations”.
At that time, her dad had already been sacked as the deputy prime minister by the then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that Anwar is the second president of the university after the demise of Hussein Onn (Najib Razak succeeded Anwar as the third president in 1999).
Such suppression of freedom of expression and academia will only turn out to be counterproductive as it would only add coal to the fire burning within our undergrads.
Even more so to the UIA students who had seen their own lecturer persecuted for speaking his mind on a subject of his expertise – constitutional law. Putting people through a baptism of fire will only make the rebel fight harder and they are more likely to prevail in their cause.
Saifuddin, who is among a handful of Barisan Nasional leaders who has been outspoken on AUKU, had said he was disturbed and saddened by UIA’s action against its constitutional law lecturer. As for the university’s (to which he was a member of faculty) action to prohibit Saifuddin from conducting his dialogue with UIA students on his electronic book titled Kalau Saya Mahasiswa (If I Were An Undergrad), Saifuddin said he was shocked though declined to comment too much over the matter in respect to the university and its rector.
Among others, the forum organized by the Law Students Association was to discuss whether the AUKU suppresses students and how universities can monitor the political involvement of students.
The landmark decision on Oct 31 by the Court of Appeal when it declared that a provision in the AUKU which restricts students from expressing in support of, or opposing, any political party, is unconstitutional is a big step towards abolishing the draconian law. In the 2-1 majority decision, Justice Mohd Hishamudin Mohd Yunus said that Section 15 of AUKU impedes the healthy development of the critical mind and original thought of students.
“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 counter-productive but repressive in nature,” said Hishamudin.
However, the battle against AUKU isn’t over yet and by the way the Opposition has been slamming the recent tabling of the new Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011 by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Nazri Aziz it looks as if the government under Najib Razak’s administration still has more tricks up its sleeves.
Najib has already tabled a motion in the Dewan Rakyat to lift three emergency proclamations (that are still in effect 40 years after their enactment) and by the sound of his announcement, the new Peaceful Assembly Bill does not sound as bad as what Pakatan Rakyat made it out to be.
During the tabling, Najib also announced his plan to amend AUKU by allowing students to join political parties though. The technicalities is not clear yet but so far (the debate on the motion is still going on as the writer is doing this article) it sounds like undergrads are permitted to be involved in political activities as long as it’s not done in their campuses.
The response from Saifuddin on Najib’s announcement was positive though he himself was reluctant to comment too much as the issue of what would be considered politicking is quite technical. We will have to see what happens following the end of the debate.
Coincidentally, Saifuddin will be featured in a forum organized by Malaysian Digest entitled "Abolishing AUKU: A Progressive Step Towards Political Maturity" on Dec 7. This Teh Tarik Session dialogue which will be held in Killiney Kopitiam, Sooka Sentral (KL Sentral) will also feature PAS Central Working Committee member Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad who is also a former lecturer for several institutions including Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).
The Kuala Selangor Member of Parliament had said that AUKU “has stifled intellectual freedom and perpetuated mediocrity. It is also to eliminate the shackles of fear that has undermined students’ development, leadership and creativity.” To this I say ‘right on’ Dr Dzulkefly. Let us all see to it that this law as well as other oppressive laws are abolished for the sake of our country’s future.
*The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer.