Last Friday, I received a telephone call from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) chapter of the Asian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) to inform me that my invitation to speak at their national conference on Sunday had been abruptly cancelled by the UKM administration, apparently on the account that I was “controversial”.
I had been scheduled to speak on the topic of ‘The Tough Tussle: Security or Transparency? Security Laws, Grappling with IS’ together with Amnesty International-Malaysia and the Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee.
I can assure you, Mr Vice-Chancellor, that I would have spoken on the history of Malaysia’s security laws, from the Emergency, Internal Security Act 1960 to more recent legislation like the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015 and National Security Council Act 2016. I even prepared a paper as advance notice was given to me, having accepted the invitation in July.
When my speaking cancellation became news, a nameless UKM bureaucrat was quoted in The Star as saying that “the management of the university felt that the slot would get too political as the event was supposed to be an academic discourse”. Presumably, this nameless UKM bureaucrat had asked not to be named - not very transparent, I must say.
UKM’s sudden decision came as a complete surprise to me as there was no process or indication that my speaking slot was under scrutiny. UKM did not even have the courtesy to inform me of the cancellation and left it to the student organisers to inform me of the bad news. Quite unbecoming of UKM, I must say.
It is unclear why I have been banned from speaking - if the grounds were in fact that I was “controversial” or “political” as though these terms are self-explanatory or sufficient to justify the ban.
Even for a moment, if I were to accept that I am “controversial” or “political”, whatever that means according to UKM’s definition, are these really proper grounds to justify a ban? Can we not let the students listen to other views or from persons that the university might not be comfortable with?
Universities are supposed to be a place of higher learning, for exchange of ideas and views, “controversial”, “political” or otherwise. A student’s time at university is supposed to serve as a gateway into independent and critical thought. They should be presented with different and often conflicting ideologies, not just those approved by the university and the government of the day, as often the case in Malaysia.
When a university lacks autonomy and independence, succumbs to political pressure and patronage, it ceases to become a centre for higher learning and excellence. Needless to say, public universities by their very public nature, shouldn’t be allowed to act on a whim, as though they are accountable to no one or more likely in their minds, just to the government of the day.
One must embrace academic freedom
To be a serious institute of higher learning, one must embrace academic freedom, hold different ideas and learning seriously. Otherwise, it would be quite impossible to become a world class university that UKM aspires to be.
In 2017, UKM was ranked in the bracket of 600-800 by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the most authoritative global university performance index. In 2016, it ranked UKM, 161-170 for the Asia University Rankings. These rankings show how far away UKM is from being truly world class, as compared to for example, the National University of Singapore which was ranked 1st in Asia.
Further, UKM, like many other Malaysian universities, has a history of taking disciplinary action against student activists viewed as anti-government. Most recently, a show cause letter was issued against Student Unity Front president Asheeq Ali for participating in the #TangkapMO1 rally at Dataran Merdeka.
If I were you, Mr Vice-Chancellor, I would be proud of producing student activists like Asheeq who are concerned with what is happening to the country, rather than encouraging students to attempt pointless records, for example, UKM’s 36-hour non-stop aerobic exercise stunt which entered the Malaysian Book of Records 2013.
Our students should be given the opportunity to make informed decisions, to make their own choices as to whether they want to listen to “controversial” or “political” speakers, or not. Open up their minds instead of closing them down.
Our students deserve better.
ERIC PAULSEN is executive director, Lawyers for Liberty.