The Chains On Our Freedom of Speech

The storming of the gates of University Malaya (UM) on October 27th, Monday, was a victory for students all around Malaysia. No one, short of being a convicted criminal or for obvious security reasons (and even then it is debatable) should be barred from giving a speech on academic grounds to students who wish to hear them. For those who are unaware, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition coalition in Malaysia had been invited by the  University Malaya Undergraduates Association (PMUM) to give a speech at his alma mater entitled, 40 years: from UM to prison. He was subsequently been banned by the school administration from giving the speech, but the student organisers were still very keen on having it.

It was an exciting tension filled night that should commandeer as much importance as Blackout 505. And not for political reasons or at least not so much for that but more for the students of Malaysia. It was simultaneously a turning point and a highlighting point for us. Turning point students showed the world they were a force to be reckoned with and they would stand up for what they believed was right and a highlighting point because it showed how the University of Malaya, Malaysia’s oldest and most respected university, founded before Independence was not all that it should be. This begs the question on what the role and duties of a university should be.

First; a little background about universities. Universities began with the idea of ‘Studium generale’ otherwise known as School of Universal Learning. These were places where people from all over the world, students and teachers alike gathered for learning. Learning happened through speech, unfettered discourse and sharing of ideas. And therefore it came to be that universities were closely associated with the principles of free speech and academic freedom.

So back to that cold, muddy night where everyone huddled outside the gates with their umbrellas up. The UM administration had ordered the campus security to bar the gates and there were people stuck on both sides trying to get to the other side.  Chants of “buka, buka” “open, open” filled the air. The atmosphere was electric. Every so often the crowd would attempt to charge the gates and at those moments the cameras would start snapping wildly in the hopes of documenting the key moment when the gates sprang open. At that moment I wondered, who in the crowd were the rabble rousers, the supporters of Anwar and who were the academics. The security staff who were manning the gates, understandably, did not look very keen on interfering with the excited crowd.

When the crowd, finally, in several concerted surges, managed to break the chain around the gates with the sheer force of their bodies, they also metaphorically broke the chains placed around their minds. The students had prevailed in the battle for the freedom of speech and won.

Anwar surrounded by the masses

Anwar’s speech touched on everything ranging from the “I want to touch a dog” event to his life in UM. He wondered as to why the university would not let a member of its alumni speak on its grounds and questioned its lack of academic freedom over the Azmi Sharom incident. The university’s stance, indeed the country’s stance on students and academicians being involved in politics was questioned.

Whatever the policies may be, politics should very much be in the realm of students. As citizens of a country, how a country is run and who runs it is very much the concern of its students. How can they be expected to turn a blind eye on the happenings in a country? There is no specific time and place for politics; it is always.

Politics stimulates debate and critical thinking, it imbues students with passion and curiosity for their country. Students can hone their leadership and public speaking skills in such an arena. Rather than banning students from getting involved in politics, universities should be allowed to encourage it and become a space where students can explore and debate politics from an academic perspective. If students are subscribers to certain political ideologies, then universities should guide students to defend and reason out their choices and beliefs. This would train them to be more objective, reason driven rather than emotionally driven advocates.

After hearing the oft mentioned complaints that youths nowadays have no interest in their own country, that they are shallow creatures capable of little serious thought, we should be celebrating students who are forthright,  raring to make a difference and concerned enough about their country to want to barge down a gate to hear from the people in charge of it.

Lhavanya DL


Image credit to Sherilyn Goh.

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