A Worried Student
The standard of public universities in Malaysia have been going down in recent time and many reasons have been given on why the standards are dropping yet some still refuse to acknowledge that this is the case and claim that it is perfect as it is and students should be thankful and stop complaining. But this piece is not about public universities in Malaysia as a whole but rather a certain one named UiTM. This university has been appearing a lot in the news lately especially concerning the proposal made by Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim on opening the gates of the institution to 10% of non-bumiputra students and it has caused a great deal of furore.
About 5,000 students marched to protest against the proposal under Gabungan Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung (GPMS) and the UiTM Student Council with the direct backing of the Vice Chancellor. Posters were distributed all over the main campus to promote the protest with headlines such as, “Anda sayang UiTM?”, “ MRSM sudah, SBP sudah, Matrikulasi sudah, JPA sudah, UiTM seterusnya?”, “Ini bukan mengenai kesama rataan bangsa, ini mengenai hak”, “UiTM telah membantu kita, apa sumbangan kita kepada UiTM? Sedarlah wahai bangsaku”.
If one is able to read between the lines, we can see the wordplay here expressing that if a student is to not support this protest, they are one of the ignorant unenlightened ones who do not care for UiTM. Now as a student of the University, I feel disappointed that opinions that differ from the norm are usually labelled as traitors. I have always felt that most of these things are usually politically motivated. I cannot fight the feeling that a NGO such as the GPMS which is headed by someone working right under the Prime Minister, is not exactly a non-partisan group. For this is also one of the organizations that went for the protest at the recent Bar Council forum and went a little, overboard.
The UiTM Student Council which unanimously supported this protest must not be looked upon as the voice of UiTM for they only speak for themselves when they come out with protests such as these and label those who do not support it as traitors to the race. How many students from the institution have spoken out supporting the idea of liberalizing the university? Almost none. But how many students who agreed with the proposal by Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim in silence? A number in the minority, albeit a very significant one. And the sad thing is, there is little avenue for any of them to express themselves in the University or externally. With the little avenue available, those that attempt to express themselves are usually met with threats and childish arguments.
One particular UiTM student was asked to wear black coloured clothing by a senior when he refused to as the colour black on that day meant supporting the protest and he did not support it. The senior could only respond in ways such as asking him whether he was a jew or a homosexual. And this brilliant friend of mine then just answered, “No, I’m a muslim and remember when the Prophet Muhammad SAW ruled Medinah? He had all kinds of races that were hostile towards each other to live peacefully under the open sky. Why would you be afraid of opening this institution to others if you claim to take the prophet as your example?” And the senior who was lost for words just left and slammed the door on him. Although stories like these do not happen everyday in UiTM as many students who share similar views to my friend here are usually fearful of the consequences of speaking openly.
Any sign of disobedience towards policies or so-called UiTM values and ideals are usually not tolerated. Even in class, when certain students question the lecturers, they are usually viewed as “tak sedar diri”. Questioning has never been the culture in Malaysia’s education system but is never really encouraged in the Universities either, where it is supposed to give birth to new ideas and paradigms of thinking. How can we do this when our students keep still and silent? Oscar Wilde once said, “It is through disobedience that progress is made”, and it is no wonder why there has been little groundbreaking research or achievements that could make a difference in society. I remember that in a certain lecture relating to Islamic Law, a student questioned the validity of a certain hadith (Prophet’s sayings) the lecturer mentioned and she was booed by the whole class and the lecturer just said, “Balik baca buku dulu baru cakap!” when in fact I thought that she was the one who read more than the lecturer did. Among the other things that were aimed at her were , “Ni bukan Islam ni! Rejam dia je!” and “Yahudi!” And of course, later on, she was ostracized by many.
Many have blamed the draconian University and Colleges Act for restricting views and practically killed freedom of thought and speech but I argue that it goes beyond that, it has to do with the mindset. You do not need to threaten someone with harm to control a person, you just need his or her mind to be one of yours. And this is exactly what certain parties are trying to do through certain programmes such as the now infamous Biro Tatanegara which tries to inculcate fear into the Bumiputra students that they are under serious threat and then turns that fear into hate. Classes that were in the midst of being held were recently stopped and the students of a certain batch were told to join a GPMS talk on how the Malays are being threatened by Dato Seri Khalid Ibrahim.
It is easy for an institution as UiTM to change these naïve minds which are still open to reception of new ideas, to minds that are closed especially when the “others” such as the non-bumiputra’s are nowhere to be seen around campus. As many still do not have close friends other than the Malays, they fear what they do not know and begin to stereotype and hate. And those who know there is something wrong with all of this but dare not speak out or do anything about it usually end up conforming with the rest for regrettably, it is easier to live that way. But then again, this does not apply to all the students in UiTM although it is enough to be deeply worried about.
All this has also created a backlash which I am very concerned about. I have read and heard that many employers of corporations, companies and firms are planning to boycott UiTM graduates and many of them quickly label the students as all being idiotic ethno-supremacists. I truly believe that this will only worsen the situation. How could it be fair that you reject the applications of thousands of students on the basis that they come from a certain University? Many brilliant students have also joined UiTM and been deceived to think that it is a brilliant institution of higher learning and some have no other choice due to financial constraints. Many of them do not subscribe to racist principles. It is also sad to see that many Malaysians have begun to neglect the UiTM issue by not giving any thought to it as they believe only incompetent graduates are churned out and they themselves would not care that if it is open or not as they would not send their own children there. This should not be the case at all. A victory for justice is a victory for all and it is our responsibility as the rakyat to bring about change, not the politicians. As to the issue of no non-Malays would want to enter the institution anyway, that is false. I have an Indian friend living with a single mother and who is a bit unlucky in the financial side. He tried to apply for UiTM to achieve his dream to do law once, although he was innocently ignorant of the institution’s policies on race. I did not have the heart to tell him that he could not do so. This is only one story from many others that could not afford the cost of the various private institutions available. As they say, the poor is a part of all races and exclusive to none.
Though I believe there is still hope. The light comes soon after the darkest part of the night. In an incident in a Constitutional Law lecture, a student went up to class defending the recent student protest as on the principle of defending natives’ rights with, in her own words, “First come, first serve”. Ironic that a business principle has been adopted to an issue affecting all of Malaysia, I thought to myself. I then proceeded to ask her why then are there cases of stripping the rights of land from the Orang Asli, which are the real natives, to give way to capitalist ventures and these natives are then only compensated with how much their houses were worth, which probably costs less than my pair of shoes? Is it not a practice of double standards when you talk about “First come, first serve”? Are we really protecting the natives’ rights or Malays in particular? She then proceeded to open the Federal Constitution to find an answer but predictably, it was in vain. She ended her presentation right there with a dumbfounded look. But what happened soon after was even more interesting. Students from the class started to flock and ask me questions, wanting to know more about the issue. With interested faces all around, I could only smile.
Maybe rational arguments, debate, and different ideas and thoughts could give birth to a student culture that hungers for knowledge rather than merely passing the exams. Maybe student activism could breathe again as it did a while ago. Maybe liberalizing the University would be in the best interest for all and it could be a step towards turning things around. Maybe dissent could be encouraged. Maybe people could throw hate away and begin to understand. Maybe everything happens for a reason. Maybe another Malaysia is breathing silently, waiting for the right time to awaken.