Thanks to everyone who came to our discussion on Friday! We weren’t sure that a session specifically on the details of the Universities Act (AUKU) would draw interest, but we were pleasantly surprised. Many of you reported that it was something worth learning about.
What’s in the law
We began the session with a reading of Sections 15 & 16 of AUKU, going through the specific prohibitions listed (of which there are many) and the powers granted to the Vice Chancellors and the University Boards to mete out disciplinary punishment on top of whatever criminal charges the government decides to pursue on student activists. These included the original text of the now-repealed S15C, which violated presumption of innocence in law by placing the burden of proof on students if they were caught with material belonging to an unauthorised group or collective.
AUKU is of course not the only law that does this. Any of the other censorship laws that Harapan has yet to abolish, and in the case of scholars, anti-politics clauses in their scholarships, can achieve the same thing. The law deals with dissident activity among students by threatening to destroy their professional and financial development. This is where so much of the fear of politics in Malaysia’s students and parents comes from.
Where AUKU came from
We then went briefly into the history of AUKU as an act, recalling how at first, when the University of Malaya was established, the law under which it was founded said nothing about student activity. While the government did occasionally crack down on student protests, the student union worked hard to keep that culture alive among students, and forged strong networks with trade unions, activists and oppressed communities throughout the country. For more information about this period, we recommend Fahmi Reza’s excellent public lecture on Student Power in the 60s which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-abHWls-p4
After the May 13 riots of 1969, and the declaration of emergency, the UMNO-led Barisan government began systematically clamping down on civil liberties by amending laws and the Constitution. While leftist and non-Malay movements in Malaysia were suppressed, Islamist currents continued to remain active on campuses. AUKU was passed into law in 1971 to standardise the administrative law for all Malaysian campuses, but also contained provisions banning students from being involved with political parties and trade unions. The remaining prohibitions entered AUKU when it was amended in 1974, in the wake of continued student opposition and in particular the anti-poverty protests in Baling. We noted that a number of major political figures in Malaysia today including Anwar Ibrahim and Hishammudin Rais got their start as part of the student movement. AUKU remained a crucial tool that kept politically activated students returning from the Middle East under control.
In 2009 and 2012, AUKU was amended (we suspect, in response to major public protests like Bersih and the electoral threat they posed), each time softening some of the provisions, but the current law is still clearly a tool designed to allow the government and universities to simultaneously pursue student dissidents. Hence, the inclusion of a promise to abolish AUKU in the Harapan Manifesto. But the week prior to this meeting, the Education Ministry announced that it would take up to 5 years, the full term of the current Harapan government, to abolish AUKU. The Ministry also announced it would convene a 12-member expert panel, which as far as we are aware is made entirely of university bureaucrats, to design the replacement law.
How to get rid of AUKU
The discussion then moved into strategy on how to get AUKU abolished. An solid point was raised that so far, AUKU has been implemented in a biased way, always in favour of the prevailing government. Unless Harapan feels that the student movement is vital to its continued rule, there isn’t really a direct motive for them to abolish AUKU right away. Indeed, some Harapan politicians and youth leaders have raised concerns that abolishing AUKU now would give conservative Muslim groups free rein to operate on campuses.
However, we came to the agreement that because the implementation of AUKU has always been biased in favour of conservative groups, whatever resistance AUKU may pose to conservative Islamist groups, it poses far more of a problem to progressives and left groups who not only want to bring in more civil liberties but also want to challenge the racism of UMNO and PAS directly. Unless there is space on the campuses for students to argue a progressive alternative to the students and voting base that UMNO and PAS are trying to win over, Malaysia will drift slowly back over to the right. Indeed, if it ever comes to the point that students have to mobilise against hard-right forces on campus, as students in the US and Europe have had to do in recent times, AUKU must not be there to stand in their way.
At the end of the day, AUKU is responsible for significant disenfranchisement, apathy and political illiteracy among the Malaysian youth. It smothers space in universities, where the most radical and progressive sections of society often are, to challenge conservatism in the government and in wider society. It prevents students and university staff from governing their own affairs and collectively bargaining for better conditions. It effectively ensures that the rich and powerful of society, who find their way onto university boards, often by their connections to the government of the day, control what students are allowed to do.
That’s why MPOZ is involved with student movements back home that are working at this very moment to mobilise students to demand the abolition of AUKU. If and when AUKU is gone, that will pave the way for the removal of other censorship and anti-protest laws. With the bottom-up approach that we are advocating in these movements, we want to get as many staff and students as possible involved in the reconstruction of the student and staff unions that once safeguarded the interests of the University of Malaya community in the 60s. This in turn may well form the basis for the return of trade unionism in Malaysia, and an improvement in working conditions for workers in Malaysia.
One guest pointed out that AUKU only affected student activists, of which there are comparatively few in Malaysia. But upon accepting the necessity of bottom-up mobilisation, it is clear that many more students must become active and agitate for university reforms, to spread the demand of student self-governance among the student population. As part of this struggle, MPOZ invites all students to play their part by joining up, and arming themselves with the political education they were denied at home.
If you found this summary useful, you should consider joining us for future Malaysiaku sessions. We’d also love to discuss this topic or just meet up at any MPOZ activities! You can always find our upcoming events on Facebook.