Battle to light political fire in students

Student groups are getting bolder by demanding the right to publish independent student newspapers and called for academic freedom for lecturers.

(Free Malaysia Today) – Microphone in hand, college student Muhammad Nasrul Alam rails against political restrictions on Malaysian campuses as well as bread-and-butter concerns like his school’s unstable wi-fi network.

But he faces a tough crowd: fellow students who are just waiting for a bus on the University of Malaya campus and who show a lack of interest in politics — something that Malaysian student leaders hope to change.

Those hopes have soared since Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak vowed in November to end a ban dating from the 1970s on college students joining or supporting political parties, the latest in a series of pledges to reform oppressive laws.

The ban has stunted student activism on campuses like the University of Malaya — the top university in this multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority country.

But with Najib expected to call pivotal elections in 2012, the political attitudes of Malaysian students like Nasrul, 22, loom larger than they have in decades.

“It’s important for me now that students can participate in politics, whether in the government or in the opposition,” Nasrul told AFP after his appearance at a tightly controlled “speakers corner” on the campus near the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia, a country of 28 million people, has about 12 million registered voters. But it also has at least 2.5 million young people who have reached voting age since 2008, when the opposition made historic parliamentary gains.

The enlarged youth vote is viewed as crucial in upcoming polls. Najib’s student pledge was aimed at wooing young voters to prevent a further setback that could threaten the five-decade rule of his United Malays National Organisation.

It is a heady time for university students.

In October, a court ruled the politics ban unconstitutional, siding with four students accused of supporting the opposition in local polls.

In July, throngs of students defied threats of disciplinary action by their colleges to join thousands of people at a rally for electoral reform in the capital that was broken up by police, who arrested 1,600 people.

UUCA is like a ghost

Many Malaysians are fed up with corruption, tensions among its many races and a perceived sense of drift under Najib’s ethnic-Malay party and want change, said Ahmad Syukri Abdul Razab.

“That is also the main objective of the student movement. For 40 years we have fought for the abolition of (the student politics ban),” said Ahmad Syukri, who heads the umbrella student organisation Student Solidarity Malaysia (SMM).

But doubts linger over how much freedom students will be allowed — or how much they even want.

Malaysian universities were once politically active. Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and now opposition leader, rose to prominence as an Islamic student agitator at the University of Malaya in the 1970s.

But they have been quiet since, in contrast to political ferment on campuses in neighbouring Thailand, Indonesia, and even China in recent decades.

On the University of Malaya’s leafy campus, a group of students — some in traditional Malay and Islamic dress — expressed little interest in politics as they ate curry lunches under a hot sun.

“Our job at the university is to study, not to get involved in politics and other things,” said an economics student who gave only her first name, Nabila.

Much of the blame for the apathy is pinned on the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which was amended in 1975 — after student protests the previous year — to include expulsions for students involved in politics.

“The UUCA is like a ghost to the students. It scares them,” said Ahmad Syazwan Muhammad Hasan, of the Islamic student organisation Gamis.

But student groups are getting bolder. In November, leading organisations demanded the right to publish independent student newspapers and called for academic freedom for lecturers.

Student groups have organised increasing numbers of discussions and even recent demonstrations. Some have been broken up by police.

“The student movement must educate Malaysians to let them know it is not a crime to change the government. It is not a sin,” Ahmad Syukri said.