Anwar’s UM talk fiasco stirred academic freedom push, say academics
Universiti Malaya might have blacked out and locked down its campus to prevent Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from giving a talk this week but the students who defied the ban showed that they cherished the principle of academic freedom and wanted to reclaim their rights to it, say academics.
That sums up the good and bad that came out of the fiasco at the university where students broke through a lockdown and blackout to enable Anwar to enter the campus and address them.
The bad part was how UM authorities bungled the incident, the academics told The Malaysian Insider.
The administrators’ actions have tarred the university’s prestige and ruined its long tradition of being one of Malaysia’s most intellectually vibrant institutions.
The good that came out of the incident was how UM students stood up to reclaim their rights to host a learning experience, which was UM’s responsibility to provide in the first place.
The student’s actions also revealed an awakening of sorts by a section of society that has often been treated as school children by university administrators, when in reality they go to university to become adults.
Prof Zaharom Nain of University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus said banning the event was bad enough from the point of view of nurturing academic freedom.
But the joke was that the wide publicity the event received made it seem as if UM administrators were secretly Anwar fans.
“If they had allowed the event to proceed it would have proceeded peacefully and not have attracted that much interest,” said Zaharom who is Professor of Media and Communication Studies.
Proof of this, Zaharom said, was in interviews The Malaysian Insider did with students who turned up for the talk.
Many students said they were not at all interested in the talk until UM administrators started closing the gates to the campus and shutting off the electricity.
The turnout, Zaharom said, was less reflective of Anwar’s appeal and more of the students’ reaction to the university’s mishandling of the event.
“It’s reflective of youths who want to take back their rights. It’s about them saying enough is enough,” said Zaharom.
UM administrators had tried to bar Anwar from attending a talk held on Monday, titled "40 years: From UM to prison", on the eve of his Federal Court appeal against his conviction of sodomising a former aide.
The university’s authorities had allowed staff to leave at 4pm and started a lockdown in order to stop Anwar’s talk.
After university staff had left the campus grounds, UM security personnel closed the Kuala Lumpur entrance to all vehicles and redirected incoming and outgoing traffic to the Petaling Jaya entrance.
However, determined UM students and supporters ensured that Anwar was able to enter his alma mater by forcing open the university's main gate at its Kuala Lumpur/Bangsar entrance and marching onto the campus grounds.
When Anwar arrived outside Dewan Tunku Canselor, the area was pitch black as the university administration's claims of electrical issues appeared to have some basis.
Anwar then gave his speech under a street light nearby.
Assoc Prof Dr Andrew Aeria of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said the UM authorities’ actions showed them for what they truly were despite the university’s image as a premier institution.
“It showed that the university is run by grovelling administrators who prioritise kow-towing to authority instead of committing to international recognised standards of academic quality,” said Aeria, a political economist.
It was also regrettable that UM’s current administrators had forgotten the institution’s glorious history of encouraging debates from all political spectrums, said Prof Datuk Abdul Rahman Embong of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“The fundamental principle of a university is that it is a marketplace of ideas for students, scholars and the public. This is how it nurtures future leaders,” said Abdul Rahman who is Principal Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS).
Abdul Rahman said unlike the UM administrators who did not live up to the institution’s tradition, the students reclaimed their movement’s past glory.
Historically, the UM student union was famous for being fiercely independent and influential in the country’s political landscape in the 1950s and 1960s.
Anwar himself was a famous student leader and the university has produced many of the nation’s future political leaders as well as world-renown scholars.
Aeria said the students’ actions were also an expression of their dissatisfaction with the quality of education that has been dished out to them by the university.
“The students are upset because they are patronised as children. They take out loans to pay for their education yet they are treated like children. It is insulting.”
The president of UM Undergraduates' Association (PMUM), Fahmi Zainol, who was among hundreds who stormed the university's main gates on Monday night to allow Anwar to enter his alma mater and address a crowd of about 2,000, said he was ready to face the consequences of his actions.
He said the programme was not just to support Anwar, but to send a message that students were fed-up with the various restrictions imposed on academic freedom.
"We are sick and tired of hearing all the complicated procedures constantly dredged up as an excuse to curb students' freedom," he said.
The students’ courage in taking on the university administration earned the praise of Negara-Ku co-chair and former Bar Council chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan who said she was amazed by the fighting spirit displayed by the students.
Describing them as the agent of change in the country, Ambiga said: "What we see now is change happening, now we are seeing our youth rising up against oppression."
And although there will be severe penalties for the students who organised the talk, Zaharom believes that their actions sent an important message to the university and other students.
“There students have stood up and said that they will not be led by the nose. That they wanted to be creative, critical and questioning citizens.”