EDITORIAL: Refreshing winds in varsities

AN entry by someone called Gansad in the kadazandusuns website’s forum recently is very telling of the state of affairs in the universities.

Gansad says the University and University Colleges Act 1971 “limits development of the minds, of being practical and critical”. Gansad asks: “So, how do you stand up for things you strongly believe in? You have to remain silent. And this leads to a tidak apa (not bothered) attitude.”

His is just one of the many voices which have, over the years, been clamouring for either a repeal of the act or amendments to restrictive clauses. Section 15 of the act is the main point of contention. Among the list of don’ts are a prohibition on associating with political parties, organisations and trade unions, publishing and distributing printed materials, and talking to the media without the express permission of the vice-chancellor. Anyone flouting the act can be charged in court.

For a long while, many informed Malaysians knew that provisions in the act were stifling university life. It has even been suggested that one reason employers prefer foreign-trained graduates is their richer experience and more mature thinking, born of a more liberal campus atmosphere. Now, the government has acknowledged it, too, by proposing far-reaching amendments to the act. As Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin says: “We are in changing times… So, we cannot have an act that would curtail these things.” We cannot agree more. The proposed amendments do away with most of the restrictive clauses. Undergraduates will still not be able to associate with any political party or unlawful organisation, but they can join any society, organisation or group within and without the campus without having to get permission from the vice-chancellor. Importantly, any infringement of the act will now be considered a disciplinary matter, not a criminal offence. There will be consequential changes in the way the university is managed, too. The vice-chancellor, for instance, will no longer be a political appointee and the dean will be selected after consultation with faculty members. Radical.

This latest move by the government to open up yet more democratic space for Malaysians is cause for cheer. Sure, some would be disappointed that the act is not being repealed. But imposing minimal restrictions on the freedom of association, expression and assembly of undergraduates is the next best thing. Much depends on whether they use the freedoms responsibly. At the very least, we hope, the amendments will remove the reason for the undergraduates’ tidak apa attitude, decried by Gansad.



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