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Friday, June 10, 2011

Making sense of campus politics

[The Malaysian Insider]MARCH 1,2011 — The recent campus elections in local universities have been no short of drama and emotion. From the missing candidate of University of Malaya, to the protests and broken glass, the public has been fed with news where students have appeared to be barbaric and university is portrayed as no longer a safe place for learning. Various comments flooded the media: some expressing worry over the decline of student security; some condemning the authorities for being undemocratic; while others simply concluded that the students were being immature.

Interestingly enough, despite the perceived ‘barbaric’ behaviour, the Pro-Student (Pro-Mahasiswa) faction had marked the greatest success in garnering support, capturing the student council of two main campuses, namely University of Malaya, and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. In Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia where they are the ‘opposition’, there was a tremendous increase in support for the candidates of the so-called ‘illegal faction’.

The devil is in the details. It is therefore the purpose of this article, to invite you to look beyond the populist view and to take a closer look at some of the causes of the problems, by listening to those at Ground Zero.


THE BACKGROUND

Student politics were largely unrestricted in days of yore, until post-Reformasi days, when the then deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was ousted, causing the anti-establishment spirit among students to rise to a new high. Recognising the increasing discontentment with the government, UMNO at that time allegedly conspired a major makeover in public education institutions by replacing ‘neutral’ vice chancellors with UMNO/Barisan Nasional (BN) insiders. Students who aligned themselves with the establishment were funded and trained to contest in order to curb the influence of the anti-establishment front whose activities were subject to a massive clampdown on as well. Faced with hard times, the support for the anti-establishment faction declined drastically, until 2009’s mini-success, which inherited the impact of Election 2008, and this year’s ‘little tsunami’ that heralded their huge comeback.

It is an open secret that the Pro-Establishment faction, who identify themselves as Penggerak Mahasiswa, has the backing of the university authorities, while the Pro-Student faction, or the Pro-Mahasiswa, who resonate much of the Pakatan Rakyat’s ideology and policies, is allegedly associated with opposition parties at the national level. The role of the university in the Pro-Establishment is obvious — though unproven, candidates of the faction apparently utilised the residential colleges’ secretariat as a central operation room.

The rules of the game are greatly imbalanced — candidates who were not ‘on their (Pro-Establishment) side’ were not allowed to campaign in residential colleges. Students were threatened with being denied accommodation in the college if they were found to be supporting the opposition. Several years ago, an incident was reported in which student numbers were jotted down beside the series number of the ballot paper in University of Malaya so that your choice of candidate wass traceable by the authorities. Money is never a factor to worry about for the Pro-Establishment candidates. Pro-Mahasiswa, meanwhile, have to raise their own funds, mainly from alumni. External political parties allegedly fund the student movement of both sides.

Chow was an active member in the Pro-Mahasiswa faction of University of Malaya about five years ago. Commenting on this year’s elections, the alumnus believes that the reason Pro-Mahasiswa won big is that students want their voice to be heard. It is a protest vote to university authorities, particularly the student affairs department (HEP) for its bias, partly encouraged by recent events in the Middle East — students are beginning to realise that they can make a difference.

Upon his graduation, Chow’s passion in politics carried on to the national platform. He believes that campus elections should go beyond campus issues. “Politics is a stream of thoughts, what more the issues affecting the students are issues beyond the campus,” he says. To him, the well-being of society is inseparable from politics.

“The university authorities shouldn’t be afraid of confrontation; look at universities overseas, New York University, for example, allows clubs that take political sides such as the students Republican club.”

SHATTERED GLASS AND DEMOCRACY

Prior to the election, the Pro-Student faction in University of Malaya had protested at the Student Affairs’ Department (HEP) office to demand for a dialogue with the deputy vice chancellor on a cleaner and fairer electoral agenda. The official version of the story is that the deputy vice chancellor allowed two representatives to meet in her office. However, the protestors insisted that the deputy vice chancellor should meet them downstairs; if not, they would all crowd her office. When their request was not met, clashes between protestors and university staff occurred, and a glass door was broken.

Amos, an ex-council member from the Pro-Establishment faction in 2009, condemned the Pro-Student faction for their lack of “logical reasoning” and “adherence to rule” in response to the ‘glass-breaking’ incident. “If they were less barbaric and aggressive, HEP wouldn’t be lopsided in their standings,” he said. His colleague, Timothy, also previously wrote in an article that the Pro-Student faction seems to enjoy being caught by the authorities and resorting to violence. “If that (the official explanation) is true, I would think that they need to know their limit in demands,” said the Timothy, now a final year medical student.

The supporters of Pro-Mahasiswa would beg to differ and blame it on the unwillingness of the authorities to hold a dialogue. Fitrah, an ex-council member from the Pro-Student faction in 2009, who participated the recent ‘glass-breaking’ protest, counters, “Takkan nak jumpa TNC pun macam nak jumpa PM.” (How can it be that a request to meet the deputy vice chancellor is as hard as a request to see the Prime Minister).

The question remains, can the voice of the students be heard if they do not resort to protests? Chow thinks that there’s nothing wrong with a student movement being ‘radical’, quoting examples of revolutions in China and France. Indeed, history shows that fundamental change often requires bold, radical, and sometimes seemingly ‘barbaric’ moves.

IT’S ABOUT THE STUDENTS AFTER ALL

Much politicisation somehow derailed attention to the periphery of the centre stage — the objective of the election itself. Student council members, like our national politics, are elected to represent the ‘people’ and champion issues pertaining to the welfare of students.

Given that the Pro-Student faction stands in direct opposition to university authorities, what were the chances that when voted in, their demands would be met? Chow admits that the Pro-Student faction’s hands are tied in the student council and lack real power. However, they managed to increase awareness among students by endorsing statements on national issues, such as the Perak crisis and the call for the abolishment of the Internal Security Act (ISA) using the platform of the student council of University of Malaya in 2009, the year they won and ‘ruled’. The fact that students vote for the Pro-Student faction despite knowing they might not be able to deliver infrastructural promises shows that the political education of students is high enough to choose democracy over development. “Or maybe, they don’t have faith that Pro-Establishment can do it anyway as they are subject to the HEP as well,” comments Chow.

Amos admits that there are flaws in the system and realises that the authorities could be bias. Nonetheless, he notes that things have improved greatly in UM. There is greater openness in allowing candidates from the Pro-Student faction to talk to students in colleges these days. He also opined that the fact the Pro-Student faction won this year shows that the electronic voting system, which was implemented since last year, does not lack transparency as deemed by the Pro-Student faction.

For Amos, he has aligned himself with the Pro-Establishment faction because he believes in fighting within the system. “If you cannot beat the system, you go around it. I believe in the water philosophy — go with the flow and accommodate resistance, rather than go head-on and cause controversy,” he says.

Timothy opines that voting should be based on candidacy, not party, as “there are bad apples in all bags.” He didn’t even know the differences between the two factions when he decided to contest in campus elections. He simply volunteered himself to his senior (a Pro-Establishment student, understandably) because he wanted to serve his fellow students.

THE CHANGE WE [DIDN’T) MAKE

While Chow takes pride in the success of the Pro-Mahasiswa-led student council in making a clear stance on key national issues, both Timothy and Fitrah think that the council did not succeed in promoting public awareness. “The council members are aware of the issues and have a stance of their own, but it does not permeate the student body at large. We did try to organise issue-based public forums but we had difficulty getting approval from HEP. That said, we didn’t push hard enough as we also were distracted by a million other things,’ says Fitrah. As she spoke, Timothy made notes using his phone, with the intention of using the information as advice for juniors.

Within the council, there wasn’t substantial intellectual discussion either. Timothy believes that the role of a student council should be student-centric, much like how a government should be people-centric. “While national issues are important, issues that affect the students directly are more pertinent and should be given more emphasis,” he comments. This is in reference to issues like student transportation, security and academic facilities. He did not deny his admiration for the courage of Pro-Mahasiswa students to fight head-on to see their electoral reform demands through, but he thinks that the protest seems a little self-serving and there are better causes to fight for: “If they are organising an anti-smoking demonstration, I will certainly be there.” Fitrah, too, agrees that more effort needs to be made in educating less politically inclined students on the relevance of the macro national issues.

Samuel from Universiti Putra Malaysia, the campus where protests similarly turned sour after the university’s decision to annul the legitimacy of the victory of Pro-Mahasiswa candidates, shares the same sentiment as Timothy. While he acknowledges that university authorities were “too arrogant” and “treat the students like kids”, he also thinks that the Pro-Mahasiswa camp seems to be “fighting for their own rights”. “I need a student council that really helps the students,” he comments. Nevertheless, he remains sympathetic to the Pro-Student faction for being suppressed by university authorities and strongly disapproves the undemocratic approach of university authorities to the elections, such as the short campaign period and the blocking of the internet in campus during the campaign period, possibly to prevent students from accessing information.

AFTERTHOUGHTS

When I was a student, among the first things first-year students were told in orientation week, was that we should focus on our studies and not get embroiled in campus politics and illegal organisations. We were shoved leaflets with testimonies of dropouts from ‘misleading’ unions on their regret over the fact that they neglected their studies. Towards the end of the week, I really believed what they said and thought that is what university is all about. Only after we were released to our respective faculties, I heard the story from the other side — stories of how students are forced to vote Pro-Establishment to secure college accommodation; of how your vote can be traced; of how candidates are harassed for running against the establishment.

Later, I found out that under the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU), which was compulsory for us to sign, I cannot participate in a gathering of more than three people, as it is deemed illegal. I also found out that I, as a 21-year-old, can vote and even contest in national politics, but under the act, is not allowed to be a member of any political party. (Following an amendment, students are now allowed to join non-government organisations that are pre-approved by the vice chancellor).

In retrospect, I feel that I’ve been treated like a fool. Politics or political thinking, in its ideal sense, is the pursuit of a good society, a science of the common good. In denying the younger generation an opportunity to be politically active, we are in effect denying them their right to patriotism.

It gave me great comfort to conduct the various conversations with the student interviewees — though they differ in approach and platform, all are genuine in their aims to make their university a better place. Despite years of suppression of AUKU, students of local universities have managed to rise up and to think for themselves and the country they are about to inherit. While it is true that the discourse of student politics should go beyond protests and boycotts, one should not neglect the determining role played by university authorities. The campus elections are far from being a level playing field, and it is of utmost importance that the Education Ministry and university authorities restore public confidence that they are impartial, non-intervening bodies.

Student leaders, on the other hand, need to go beyond the chants and memorandum. More effort is needed for them to remain relevant to students — the ordinary students whom they claim to be representing, and not just a talk shop among the enlightened ones who are in tune with political issues. Now that the Pro-Mahasiswa camp has gained much support from the universities, it is a golden opportunity for them to show that collectively, they can provide more constructive recommendations and alternative policy to the authorities’ mismanagement. It is also high time for them to ride the momentum to organise more students into having a stronger influence on national issues.

In the case of UM, recent attempts to make elections fairer are encouraging. The willingness of the authorities to listen is commendable, yet one should not undermine the good fight fought by the students in the past that exerted pressure on the authorities to act and to keep them accountable. It could be said that it is the fruits of their reform agenda, and it could be a form of motivation for others who are working hard against the tide.

The truth is, no matter how hard you try to contain it, the spirit of youthful idealism is irresistible; even the most indifferent student, if sufficiently riled up, would feel the urge to demand for truth and justice.

* Ivy Kwek is an aspiring writer who reflects on life in this country. She is proudly local university-bred despite all odds.

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