PN’s decision to retain UUCA is a huge setback for Malaysia’s democracy

The future of the planned Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) abolition was hanging in the balance since the PN government came to power. However, in a written reply on July 27 to former education minister Maszlee Malik, the Higher Education Ministry said in the Parliament that the UUCA is still relevant and confirmed that the government scrapped the plan to abolish the UUCA.

I’d condemned the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government for scrapping the planned UUCA abolition committed by the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. The PN government’s decision is one of the biggest setbacks for Malaysia’s democracy as it directly threatens freedom of expression and academic freedom that should be guaranteed and safeguarded for academicians and varsity students.

The UUCA is a product of the 1970s that destroyed student activism as well as dismantled the Student Union in the University of Malaya in order for the then government to preserve its shaky regime. Before the implementation of AUKU, student activism in Malaysia was gaining ground and becoming influential among the masses.

Meanwhile, the Student Union, which was the highest student organisation representing varsity students, used to have substantial powers and autonomy in student affairs and had demonstrated immense leadership and courage by being vocal and critical about social and national issues. Facing the shaky political situation after the 1969 General Election, the government decided to clamp down on student activism and introduced the UUCA that buried the Student Union and student autonomy as a whole.

Ever since the draconian UUCA was introduced in 1971, the then BN government had, with apparent assistance provided by universities, penalised a lot of student activists including ordinary students whose views were not aligned with the government’s. An example that grabbed national spotlight before the change of government in 2018 is the disciplinary actions taken against student activists in 2017 by the highest management of the University of Malaya (UM) and the National University of Malaysia (UKM), just because the students followed their conscience to protest openly over the notorious 1MDB scandal.

The freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution was, in reality, not enjoyed by students as they had to constantly be worried about the ensuing repercussions of speaking up against injustice.

Our varsity students should be given the autonomy and firm support by the government so that they can formulate and implement policies on campus as well as to lead their fellow students. As a university is a miniature of the society, students should be given the opportunity and space to train themselves and to even make mistakes before taking up the mantle to become future leaders in various fields.

Nevertheless, the UUCA had completely shattered student autonomy, rendering students powerless in any decision-making process on campus. Such a situation has also severely undermined the noble role of higher education institutions, which is to become generators of knowledge that could promote critical thinking and high order problem solving skills amongst our students.

Although the PH government might not be fast enough in abolishing the UUCA, several significant steps had been taken to abolish the draconian act. Among all, a special taskforce involving student leaders and reputed academicians was formed to thoroughly study the act and to put forward plans in order to abolish AUKU and to replace it with a new comprehensive law that supports academic freedom and student autonomy. Apart from that, both former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as well as former minister of education had promised openly that the UUCA will be repealed by the PH government.

Unfortunately, PN government’s abrupt and unreasonable decision not only brought the plan to abolish UUCA to naught, but the white terror that used to be looming on our universities for decades might once again return.

Abolishing the draconian UUCA is necessary and must be continued to safeguard freedom of expression and academic freedom, as well as to reinstate student autonomy for varsity students who will be our future leaders.

Chiong Yoke Kong
DAPSY DEPUTY CHAIRMAN & SA FOR TANAH RATA
Media statement by Chiong Yoke Kong in Cameron Highlands on Thursday, 30th July 2020