December 21, 2016
Academic Freedom and The University
by Teoh King Men@www,freemalaysiatoday.com
“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”–George Washington
Historically, our academic freedom had its origins in the 1960s, cherished and upheld by the Universiti Malaya Student Union (UMSU) and the Persekutuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya (PBMUM). Led by Anwar Ibrahim, these movements were instrumental in getting then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to step down. It also implicated the police force, who invaded Universiti Malaya and subsequently disrupted the protests against the erstwhile PM.
We forget that it is this man as Prime Minister for 22 years+who was the slayer of academic freedom when he was Minister of Education in the 1970s.–Din Merican
Likewise, in 1979, a large-scale demonstration by students in solidarity with poor farmers in Baling, Kedah, faced similar consequences. Hishamuddin Rais, a student activist, was forced to flee the country as the Malaysian government went out of its way to arrest the demonstrators.
As these two brief recollections of past events have shown, students of past decades were broadly active in raising awareness on issues of great concern to both public and private interests – issues both political and personal, national and local.
Turning to the present, it should then come as no surprise that in light of the country’s recent 1Malaysia Development Berhad and public finance scandals, the freedom to protest has once more been trampled upon. Universiti Malaya student Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof and two other student activists were recently suspended for a semester and slapped with a RM400 fine for their involvement in the “Tangkap MO1” (MO1) rally.
It must be emphasised that students play an integral part in the exchange of ideas and truth in our society, and therefore, should be permitted a platform on which to speak up on pressing issues, such as on corruption, governmental irresponsibility and betrayal of public trust.
Freedom of speech has no limits, and should always be respected. There is a clear distinction to be made between free speech and incitement to violence. The government, however, has been attempting to label any form of political dissent or criticism as incitement to violence. I quote George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Free speech was the predominant mechanism that granted the Malays their United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – which was inaugurated on May 11, 1946 in Johor Bahru – and the emergence of Datuk Onn Jaafar as its first President. UMNO obtained support from all strata of Malay society in opposing the Malayan Union – the aristocrats, the radical Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (Malay Nationalist Party or MNP), Islamic groups, civil servants, rural leaders like the penghulu (village heads), and even the Police and ex-service personnel.
“Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them. It produces excellent writers, and encourages men of fine genius.” – Benjamin Franklin
It is thus a matter of utmost importance that we do not stifle debate among students in the academic community. The reason being, this country is abundant in financial capital but lacking in intellectual capital – the solution to corruption is not more corruption, nor the remedy to state tyranny being more tyranny, but it is the need for intellectual honesty and expression.
Above all, the University was once a highly held institution for the free expression of ideas. And protests and rallies are inevitably part of such milieu. Academic freedom should be respected in the University in order for the students to think critically and voice up against the issues that concern them. Let us never lose sight of this, and preserve our rights.
Teoh King Men is an FMT reader.