Campus polls casting a gloom over the future

By The Star

DEMOCRACY is alive and kicking, literally speaking, in our campuses. But it is not only the students calling the shots.

It is clear that their political leanings are a microcosm of the emerging two-coalition system represented by Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. Within the campus grounds they are known as Pro-Aspirasi and Pro-Mahasiswa, one supposedly for the establishment, the other against.

And, as is happening in the real world outside, their words and actions have taken on a confrontational and partisan approach.

What has grabbed our attention are unsavoury events like the breaking down of the door leading to the office of the deputy vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya, the mysterious brief disappearance of Pro-Mahasiswa candidate Masturah Abu Bakar, and students claiming to have received threatening messages on their handphones.

Perhaps the one thing missing, which would make the campus polls a true microcosm of what is happening in the outside would, is if there were attempts to entice candidates to switch camps.

It is generally believed that university students are a force to be reckoned with because they are the embodiment of the passion and the ideals of life itself.

History has shown that when students make their voices heard, they can really make a difference.

Ever since the clampdown on student activism in the 1970s with the enactment of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, the atmosphere in campuses has been generally sedate.

There has been regular clamour for change, and we see how, in recent years, there is a commitment to open up space, like having speaker’s corners in some universities, supposedly to encourage students to freely express themselves.

The heat and drama of campus elections, in some ways, also indicate that the times are a-changing.

University education is certainly a period when minds are moulded for real learning, and primed for critical thought.

It must be a time when the idealism of youth can be productively channelled towards the right discourse to benefit the greater society.

It is not just about winning polls, even though election time is when the drama is at full force.

What is needed in our campuses is the freedom of speech and association that will encourage meaningful debate on issues.

The main tenets of a university education, after all, are supposed to include critical thinking, the ability to debate effectively and the thirst for truth.

If, for example, the undergraduates find the conduct of our current-day politicians to be divisive, the last thing they must do is to mimic the antics of such politicians. Aggressive behaviour and hate speeches are certainly not to be condoned.

They must be able to rise to higher principles and give us hope that they represent the future once the current generation of politicians fades away.

When we say the youths of today are the leaders of tomorrow, we want to see them involved in meaningful pursuits. At the universities, we want them to reach the pinnacles of academia, yet emerge as well-rounded citizens of the state.

As Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States puts it: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

But when the campus polls suffer more pockmarks than it had before, what the public is left with are stories of the impertinence of youth, nothing more. We do not know what they stand for or what they seek.

Even if they become candidates for the real elections one day, we may not have a clue as to what truly makes up their character.

They need to understand what democracy is all about.

As one of our columnists put it recently: “Democracy is more than simply casting a ballot once every few years; it is a way of life, a frame of mind, an attitude of heart, where citizens actively and tangibly participate in the political life of their nation through a myriad of different ways – turning out to vote, engaging political representatives and holding them accountable, participating in dialogue and debate, staying informed on issues and making informed decisions, standing up for fundamental rights, etc.”

It is at university level that young Malaysians begin to embrace such ideals. It is not good enough to just blame the laws for keeping them from articulating these ideals. Change will come if the right motive prevails.

But if this campus election, and the ones before, are any indication, we still have a long way to go.