Malaysian Students Want Voices Heard

While the government and judiciary have resisted previous calls for changes to the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act, the students, who have vowed to take their fight to the country’s highest court, have attracted a broad range of sympathizers, including some within the governing party. 

In many countries, university campuses, brimming with youthful enthusiasm and impatience for change, have long served as hotbeds of political activism and training grounds for future leaders.

In Malaysia, however, it is illegal for students to join political parties or take part in political campaigns or protests. Students who do so risk expulsion from their university and other penalties, including fines.

Now, four political science students at the National University of Malaysia are challenging the decades-old law, which they argue violates their constitutional rights to free speech and association.

While the government and judiciary have resisted previous calls for changes to the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act, the students, who have vowed to take their fight to the country’s highest court, have attracted a broad range of sympathizers, including some within the governing party.

Under the law, students in Malaysian universities are barred from expressing “support, sympathy or opposition” to any political party, domestic or foreign. A 2009 amendment allows a vice chancellor to grant permission for students to join a political party, but the students from the National University of Malaysia said they had found no case where this had happened.

The catalyst for the legal action by those four students came earlier this year when they were detained at a police station for nine hours on suspicion of campaigning in a by-election in the district of Hulu Selangor, north of Kuala Lumpur.

One student, Woon King Chai, said that after the police stopped the students at a routine roadblock during the April by-election, university officials arrived and urged the police to “charge them with whatever you can.”

“We were very shocked,” Mr. Woon said.

The students admit that they were traveling in cars that contained brochures for the opposition People’s Justice Party. But they maintain that a member of the party had offered to show them around the district so they could conduct research for their studies.

The police released the students without charge, but several weeks later, the university summoned them to an internal disciplinary hearing to respond to allegations that they had engaged in political campaigning. One of the students, Hilman Idham, 21, said the university also insisted that he had violated the law by being in the vicinity of a by-election.

“My right as a citizen to move anywhere was taken by the state,” Mr. Hilman said.

Upon learning that they would not be entitled to legal representation at the disciplinary hearing and faced possible expulsion, the students obtained a court injunction to prevent the hearing from proceeding. They also filed a suit to have the section of the law that bars students from political activities ruled unconstitutional.

On Sept. 28, the Kuala Lumpur High Court dismissed their suit. The students have filed an appeal and are now awaiting a court date.

A spokesman said the university could not comment as the case was pending.

Mr. Hilman says the law conflicts with students’ right to vote once they turn 21, noting that casting a vote might reasonably be construed as support for a political party. “We have the right to be in politics,” he said.

Mr. Woon argues that the ban on political activity also stifles students’ educational development.

“The act has to go, not just because we want political rights for students, but because we want the best learning experience,” he said. “If you look at our counterparts in the U.S. — Harvard, for example — students there are so well informed of their democratic rights. They have shown a great deal of maturity and are able to impact policies because these countries take students seriously.”

The four students say they have received backing from students at other universities.

The Islamic Students’ Association of Malaysia, a national organization of Muslim students, has long called for the law to be changed. Four members of that group were arrested on Oct. 31 on charges that they had campaigned in a by-election in Kelantan State.

The group’s spokesman, Ahmad Shukri Kamarudin, said the students had distributed fliers urging people to participate in the by-election but did not campaign for any particular party.

One of the most vocal advocates of changing the law has been Khairy Jamaluddin, the leader of the youth wing of the governing party, the United Malays National Organization.

“What is the point of us trumpeting that young people are important assets and future leaders if their wish to involve themselves in politics is denied and met with scorn?” Mr. Khairy said in a speech to party delegates in October.

In August, the cabinet decided against amending the law, but a more recent statement from the office of Prime Minister Najib Razak suggested that decision might not be final.

“While he would prefer for students to focus wholly on their studies, he is in favor of finding a healthy balance where they can also engage in their political interests,” the statement said of Mr. Najib. “He would like to see debate in the near term on the pros and cons of the suggested changes so that the government can make the right decision.”

Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Singapore Management University who specializes in Malaysian politics, said that the law was enacted in 1971 — two years after violent ethnic riots — as part of an attempt “to control the political space” and that it had been enforced more heavily against students who supported the opposition.

But the latest calls from within the governing party for a change reflect a recognition that “young Malays, especially, are not supporting the government,” she said. “I think they think that by removing this act it will help to create good will and bring a pool of support.”

Ms. Welsh said the government could not ignore the fact that people tend to become politically aware in their late teens and early 20s. “You can’t keep some young people from being involved,” she said.

Soh Sook Hwa was one such student. She applied for a judicial review of the law in 2005 after she was fined 200 ringgit, or $63, by the University of Science Malaysia for campaigning for an opposition candidate. Last June, her application was dismissed, and Ms. Soh, 28, was ordered to pay court costs of 3,000 ringgit.

Izmil Amri, 26, a law student at the University of Technology Mara, said many students supported attempts to change the law but most expressed this view anonymously online because they were afraid they could be expelled.“The fear is still there,” he said.

Meanwhile, the four students behind the legal action say they are afraid that their university may prevent them from receiving their degrees next June. The injunction preventing the university from taking disciplinary action against them has already expired.

Despite their concerns, the students say they are committed to pursuing their case to Malaysia’s highest court and have raised enough money to pay for court filings. Their lawyers are acting pro bono.

“I think it will educate other students about student activism, to not fear the university,” Mr. Hilman said. “We have a responsibility to uphold our rights as students and also as Malaysians, as citizens of our nation.”