Can our students really speak up?

The Friday incident in UM

By V. Shankar Ganesh

It was not too long ago that university students celebrated the breaking of chains that has shackled them as they once again got their freedom of speech.

The government amended the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 last December and there were no longer constraints on them speaking out.

But the larger question looms. While the student fraternity welcomed it, is the political fraternity ready for it?
Malaysians are used to see students being bullied into submission using the Act but seeing the Education Minister’s reaction, it looks like university authorities are also yet to fully embrace the new paradigm.

The perfect example would be last Friday’s incident near Universiti Malaya which saw a group of former PM Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s supporters hurling verbal racial abuse at students for holding up placards asking he return the people’s money and where the RM2.6 billion had gone.

When the students’ refused to give up their placards, the supporters became physically aggressive and destroyed their items. Videos of the incident has since gone viral.

It looks like freedom of speech can easily be overcome by thuggish behaviour. Why need a law when the arm can easily do the work?

The incident is now evolving into a spat between the Education Minister and Universiti Malaya as both sides have a different take on the incident. Minister Dr Maszlee Malik is obviously not pleased with UM after the latter said the students should have avoided “verbal or visual” provocations.

Maszlee shot back saying universities should side those who are on path of the truth and that it should condemn violence.
He reminded universities that they should always hold up the principles of freedom for their students, so long as its within the confines of the law and university regulations.

“It is inappropriate for universities to show ambiguity in its stance and opt for a safe path when its students are being attacked by irresponsible parties,” he said.

“This happened several days ago and it could happen again in other campuses if we take a lackadaisical attitude.”
UM had confirmed that six of its students had held placards outside the university campus.

“At the same time, UM does not support any form of acts of verbal or visual provocation, either by the students or by certain groups, in light of the fact that Malaysian society is heading towards a civil society based on courtesy and politeness,” it said in a statement.

Its vice-chancellor Datuk Abdul Rahim Hashim also said that the attack could have been avoided if all involved had refrained from “provocative” words and actions.

The VC expressed hope that all those involved in the incident would act more maturely in the future without using force.
Maszlee said undergraduates should not be ashamed to press forward the truth, while also saying that universities are not a place for gangsters and extremists and that the authorities should take action if violence was involved.

UM’s statement is seen as also faulting the students and this has prompted Maszlee shot back saying all vice-chancellors should condemn the uncivilised attack on the students.

“We cannot feel shaken or fear voicing out the truth as universities are noble institutions for knowledge.”

The Higher Education Department has also come out in defence of the students saying it regretted the violence and condemned the attempt to muzzle students’ freedom of speech. It said differences of opinion, ideology and views should not be a reason for violence.

“Tolerance, mutual respect in our multi-cultured society cannot be mortgaged for the interest of certain parties.”

While it is heartening to see the government’s response to the incident has been firm and consistent, it looks like it is still being debated on whose fault is it?

Malaysians must remember that whatever the reason, responding by violence is definitely a no-no.
In this case, the students are obviously the victims. So are we blaming the victims now?

A similar comparison is when one blames the rape victim. Some have even suggested that their attire could have tempted the rapists! If such suggestions angers many, how different is this case?

Similarly, politicians need to wake up to the fact that thuggery cannot be accepted in any circumstances.
But sadly, a cursory look into social media can see many netizens trying to rationalise the attack on the students.
What can we conclude from this? Well I will leave it up to you.