KUALA LUMPUR – Measures to allow Malaysian university students to join political parties have not satisfied student activists, who say a legal amendment approved by parliament last week will further undermine their right to participate fully into politics.
Under decades-old law, it is illegal for students to join political parties or participate in political campaigns and demonstrations. Those who do risk expulsion from their university and other penalties, including fines. The law held back what was once a vibrant militant movement.
There have been instances where universities have fined and warned students for supporting political parties. Analysts say universities have mainly taken action against students who support the opposition.
The ban is expected to be lifted shortly after lawmakers in the lower house of parliament last Thursday approved an amendment to the Universities and Colleges Act, or UUCA. The law is expected to enter into force after being approved by the upper house, which is dominated by the governing coalition.
But the new amendment will still place restrictions on students, such as giving universities the power to decide which organizations, except political parties, are appropriate. Students, civil society groups and the political opposition say these conditions are repressive.
âThere is still limited freedom there,â said Haziq Abdul Aziz, secretary of Students Solidarity Malaysia, a group that represents around 15 student organizations. âWe want the government to give students complete freedom to take part in politics, to join organizations. “
Since the enactment of the law prohibiting students from expressing âsupport, sympathy or oppositionâ to any political party in 1971, Malaysian students have repeatedly called for the ban on political involvement to be lifted.
When Prime Minister Najib Razak announced last November that he planned to change the law as part of a series of reforms aimed at improving civil liberties, student activists hoped all restrictions would be lifted.
Many were disappointed when the details of the amendment were released and called for the law to be abolished.
âWe don’t really need such an act to control students,â said Adam Ali, a student activist and member of Progressive Students Legacy, a student organization at Sultan Idris University of Education. âWhy do we have to control the students? They know their rights – they can exercise their rights. With the current UUCA amendment, what is happening now is that they are controlling the students again. “
Under the amendment, students who hold political office will be prohibited from conducting political party activities on campus. Students could also be barred from joining any organization that the university’s board of trustees deemed “inappropriate for the interests and well-being of the students or the university.”
Mr Haziq said he feared universities could make arbitrary decisions about which organizations students might join.
The original amendment included a clause that would have barred students who held political office from being elected to positions in student organizations, but lawmakers voted unanimously to remove this clause before the bill was passed. . The clause had been widely criticized, including by members of the prime minister’s own party.
Parliament has rejected attempts by the opposition to remove several other clauses, including the provision that prevents students from âexpressing support or sympathyâ for an illegal company or organization the university deems inappropriate. Tian Chua, vice chairman of the opposition Popular Justice Party, called the reforms “half-hearted” in a Twitter post: “Where is the promised freedom for young people?” “
Mr Najib’s pledge that students would be allowed to participate in politics came after a court ruled last October that the National University of Malaysia had violated the Constitution by taking disciplinary action against four students who participated in a political campaign in a by-election in 2010..
Prior to the law’s enactment, Malaysian campuses were home to vibrant student activism, with many of today’s leaders, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, cutting their teeth into politics on campus. Mr Haziq said that since the law was introduced, the student movement had lost momentum, with most students now afraid to participate in politics because they feared being expelled.
âStudent activists are in the minority,â he said. âThe majority of students are not interested in politics because they are afraid the universities will take action against them. UUCA has succeeded in making students fear criticizing the government.
Lee Hock Guan, a senior researcher at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the law had âheld backâ student activism. He said that although the government changed the proposed amendment, students still could not campaign for their political parties on campus in national elections.
“To open up the political space in the universities,” he said, “they must also remove the clause prohibiting students from political party activities on campus.”
Saifuddin Abdullah, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, said he was personally in favor of allowing student political participation, but the government’s position was that political party activities would not be allowed on the campus, “the reason being to maintain the neutrality” of universities. .
The Malaysian Bar Council also called for the removal of several provisions of the amendment, claiming they violated the Constitution.
“These provisions are unnecessarily restrictive, unreasonable and disproportionate barriers to a student’s freedom of association” under the Constitution, Lim Chee Wee, chairman of the board, said in a statement.
He said existing laws have long prevented university students from actively participating in an “important aspect of the democratic process”.
âUniversities, like all institutions of higher education, must, as one of their main tasks, embrace and embrace the development of critical thinking in their students and the encouragement of solid debate,â Mr. Lim. âThis is vital to ensure a continuous flow of Malaysian thoughts capable of advancing and building our nation. ”
In Kuala Lumpur last week, student activists camped in Independence Square and marched against a government loan scheme they said charged students high interest rates and left them in debt. They have not yet decided whether they will hold another demonstration to protest the amendment, but they have pledged to continue fighting for their right to participate fully in politics.
âWe have the right to participate in politics,â said Mr. Haziq, secretary of Student Solidarity Malaysia. âStudents are like other citizens who have the right to participate in politics, to give their opinion. This is our country and we have the right to say what we want.