Students Free To Think And Speak

By Christopher Leong, Vice-President of Malaysian Bar

The Malaysian Bar welcomes yesterday’s majority decision of the Court of Appeal striking down section 15(5)(a) of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (“UUCA”) as unconstitutional.

The decision is a victory for freedom of speech and expression, enshrined in Article 10(1)(a) of our Federal Constitution. In a country that over the years has seen the gradual erosion of fundamental liberties by legislative, executive and judicial action, the Malaysian Bar commends Justice Mohd Hishamudin b Haji Mohd Yunus and Justice Linton Albert for their courageous and progressive stand in giving meaning to Article 10(1)(a) and taking a step forward in restoring our lost liberties.

Section 15(5)(a) of the UUCA has long prevented public university students of all ages from being actively involved in a significant aspect of the democratic process. It has prevented these Malaysians from expressing their views or doing anything that may reasonably be construed as expressing support for, or sympathy with, or opposition to, political parties. Section 15(5)(b) and Section 15(5)(c) of the UUCA prevent the same in respect of unlawful organisations or organisations that the Minister specifies as being unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the university.

In the past, the wide and repressive scope of section 15(5), in particular section 15(5)(a), has inexplicably been publicly justified on the grounds of the need to maintain public order and morality. Generations of Malaysian public university students have thus been unduly shackled, and our democracy has been the poorer for the loss of their voices in the public sphere.

Universities – as with all institutions of higher learning – must embrace and espouse, as one of their primary duties, the development of critical thinking by their students and the encouragement of robust debate. This is vital to ensure a continuous stream of thinking Malaysians who are able to advance and build our nation.

The Malaysian Bar is also heartened by the courage and determination of the four young Malaysians: Muhammad Hilman b Idham, Woon King Chai, Muhammad Ismail b Aminuddin and Azlin Shafina bt Mohamad Adza, in insisting on their rights to freedom of speech and expression under the Federal Constitution.

The Malaysian Bar notes that section 15 of the UUCA does not merely seek to deprive a section of Malaysians of their freedom of speech and expression; it also denies them, in section 15(1) of the UUCA, of their fundamental right of freedom of association. We call upon the authorities to accept the principles underlying the decision of the Court of Appeal, and to therefore repeal sections 15(1), 15(5)(b) and 15(5)(c) of the UUCA.