Mohd Ridzuan Mohammad (left) and Hishamuddin Rais prior to sharing their views on student activism of the past and present.
Some 35 years separate them. Hishamuddin Rais was president of the Universiti of Malaya in 1974 and Mohd Ridzuan Mohammad is the present president. With ARMAN AHMAD sitting in, the ex-president, often portrayed as a rabble-rouser, and the current president, a young man with ‘progressive ideas’, talk about the of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 and student activism in the country
|Hishamuddin Rais, 58, the president of the Universiti Malaya student union in 1974, was arrested for leading a number of student demonstrations. He went into self-exile for 20 years, journeying through 30 countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Australia and Pakistan. He now contributes to a newspaper column and writes film scripts.|
|Islamic studies scholar Mohd Ridzuan Mohammad, 23, is currently head of the Universiti Malaya student representative council and chairman of the national student representative council. He is also the former chairman of the University Students’ Movement to Abolish the Universities and University Colleges Act.|
Hishamuddin: There is a misconception that student activism began in Universiti Malaya in the 1970s. Student activism can be traced to the 1950s.
During that time, at the University of Malaya in Singapore, student activism had already taken root. Students there were criticising the British occupation of Malaya.
In the 1960s, student activism was intense in Universiti Malaya (as the university in Malaya was known when the University of Malaya was split into two divisions) in Kuala Lumpur.
I became the 17th president of Persatuan Mahasiswa Universiti Malaya (UM student union) in 1974. When I became the president, UM was still an autonomous body.
It wasn't just the academic institutions that were free at the time. Many other institutions in the country were free and autonomous, including the newspapers.
At the time, comments made by student leaders were reported in the newspapers. Student leaders had the courage to speak up.
Ridzuan: Since the introduction of the Universities and University Colleges Act almost 40 years ago, we have seen a gradual decline in student activism because many of the student leaders are afraid. Students have also been arrested under the Internal Security Act.
Last August, we organised a peaceful protest at the entrance of the Parliament building, calling for the abolition of the act.
We lay on the road in front of Parliament to protest against the proposed amendments. There have been a number of amendments to this act over the years but we believe all of them, including the latest amendments, were to appease certain groups and would not benefit students.
They are cosmetic in nature and do not affect the act which restricts student activism. The act does not benefit students in any way.
Hishamuddin: Although the act already existed when I became the student union president, we just ignored it.
Those days, we had our own funds to operate. There were 10,000 students and each student paid an annual fee of RM24, which meant each year, the student union would have RM240,000 in its coffers.
Our student union was the richest in Southeast Asia at that time. We had three buses to provide free transportation to students, a van, a motorcycle and a newspaper. I had 17 staff, including a driver, several clerks, a tukang sapu (sweeper) and other workers.
Because we had our own finances, we were an autonomous body in our own right. We organised our own events and programmes.
Ridzuan: Our accounts today are held by the Student Affairs Department of the university.
Students are not allowed to collect funds. We have difficulty in organising certain events because of this. There are many obstacles to overcome. When we contested, we had pledged the RM600 that is paid as my allowance as well as the allowances of the supreme council members would be contributed towards the students' needs. But these allowances have now been blocked.
Hishamuddin: It is sad to see that after more than 30 years of the existence of the act, the student movement has suffered such a decline. In those days, the student movement spoke up on issues involving the rights of the people.
I remember in August 1967 when a landless farmer, Hamid Tuah, and his followers opened up land for agriculture and settlement in Teluk Gong.
(About 530 farmers had planted vegetables and built settlements on a 1,000-acre plot. In September, the government gave them a week's notice to vacate the land.)
Hamid was detained under the ISA. The student union spoke out against the detention.
There were numerous other incidents where the student unions were very vocal on issues involving the society at large, the most well-known being the Baling incident.
(The price of rubber fell drastically in 1974 and the situation, made worse by creeping inflation, saw farmers and rubber smallholders struggling. More than 20,000 peasant farmers demonstrated in Baling, Kedah, on Dec 1. Two days later, students joined in to support them with a big rally at the Selangor Club padang -- Dataran Merdeka -- in Kuala Lumpur. There was a crackdown on student leaders and Hishamuddin fled the country.)
The student movement reached its pinnacle in 1969. In that year, the students started getting involved in the election. They campaigned around the country and created manifestos.
(A total of 13 gatherings were held, attended by about 100,000 people.)
But it wasn't aligned to the coalition or opposition group. They wanted to educate the people through forums and talks.
Their efforts were perhaps part of the reason for the surprising outcome of the 1969 election that eventually led to the passing of the university act.
Ridzuan:We are working towards the abolition of the act. We have to admit that this seems a remote possibility at this time.
It is unfortunate that the government should think that the student bodies will be on the offensive the moment the act is repealed.
There are also other issues that need to be put right. Over the years, there has been a history of interference by political parties in Universiti Malaya's student politics.
Some political parties have exerted their influence on the student bodies. However, the situation is changing for the better and we have a vice-chancellor who is not politically affiliated or motivated.
Hishamuddin: Yes, in the past few years, some undergraduates have become a "part" of political parties .
If they are "stooges" of Pakatan Rakyat or Barisan Nasional and just spout the views of these parties, they are not held in any regard by the students. It sure is good when there are students who are non-partisan and dare to speak the truth.
Ridzuan: We do not have political ties with any political parties outside the campus although some people have claimed that because most of our manifestos seem similar to the opposition, we must be linked to the opposition. But the truth is, we are truly non-partisan.
However, this has not always been the case at Universiti Malaya. For the past few years, groups who have clear links with mainstream political parties have held the student union leadership.
After boycotting the 2003 election, the "progressive-thinking" seniors contested again and lost between 2004 and 2007.
We attribute our win this year to the changing political climate in the March 2008 election. The changing political climate seemed to have affected the students as well those who wanted change. We hope to see more positive changes in the future.http://www.nst.com.my/