I had to honour of joining the conversation with Dr Zulkifli Hasan and Prof Meredith Weiss alongside other student leaders on ‘Restructuring Student Activism’ in conjunction with the International Students’ Day Celebration organized by Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM) on November 17, 2020.
When we were on the crossroads of transitioning into IIUM Student Union back in 2019, I witnessed how Dr Zulkifli within his formal authority fought for student empowerment in its real sense by pushing for student participation in policymaking at our beloved university, while Prof Weiss’ book on Malaysian student activism had been one of our team’s major sources of information and more importantly, of inspiration, as it showed how there could be a different way of living a student life.
For example, the students back in 1960s had autonomous unions where they had direct control over their societal activities and budgets, and they mobilized thousands of students to call out the ineffectiveness of authorities, such as questioning the morality of the government for putting folks in Baling in starvation due to their lack of action following the drop of the price of rubber.
‘Student activism’ is a dynamic subject matter, as it is influenced by this trio: values, attitudes, and institutions. The values projected on students in our country today shape students’ perspectives on our roles in nation-building, the attitudes that follow will determine the outcomes, and the enablers of all these are mainly by the systems set by the institutions which administer the conducts of our students. The question of how far students in Malaysia have the influence in realizing social or political changes today goes back to the mould of higher education ecosystem shaped by Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) 1971, among the acts which govern higher education institutions in Malaysia today. It inevitably is responsible for the atmosphere of our campus politics.
I believe student activism is synonymous with campus politics. Students’ freedom to associate such as in political fronts on campus or political parties in general or our freedom to express and criticize in political discourses are part of campus politics, but it should not be limited to these freedoms only.
The side of ‘campus politics’ which I hope to emphasize is the degree to which students hold power and autonomy in relation to the university administration and management of student affairs. Student power and autonomy translated into reality will include students’ participation in policymaking, carrying out fundraising or receiving budgets for students’ activities without much unnecessary bureaucracy, etc.
This means shaking up the status quo. This means calling for systemic change. This is exactly part of the unprecedented challenges of establishing IIUMSU since the past two years. The endeavours still continue to this day and must be carried on by the future leaderships, both of the students and the administrators. It is indeed time-consuming to go around many legal matters to amend wherever necessary to rightfully treat students as crucial stakeholders of the higher education ecosystem, but it has also been long overdue. However, the systemic change can take place faster if the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) has the political will to give universities and students more autonomy in managing our respective affairs, since it is already in the position to be able to do so.
The impact of the UUCA since its suppression of student autonomy has caused not only the legal restrictions to become deeply embedded in the Malaysian political system of student representation
where the current norm of Student Representative Council (SRC) is only a subordinate entity with clearly insignificant powers under the university by law, but it has also institutionalized paralysis in the cultures of students in Malaysia when it comes to getting our voice counted as one collective population.
Students in the higher education ecosystem of Malaysia make up a population of over 1 million. From defending our student interns’ rights to be paid, all the way to speaking for increased wages for the “invisible” frontliners e.g. cleaners during this COVID-19 crisis, our collective voice has the potential to make a difference if united, but that is yet to be the case.
It must be acknowledged that students have been speaking up about issues, from minor campus matters to major humanity crises. It must be commended that students have been taking actions, for communities inside and outside campus. However, the silo mentality is still high, because students are still divided or compartmentalized, by the apolitical societies they identify with, if not the political branches they subscribe to. These diverse preferences and inclinations should be celebrated so long they do not go against the teachings of Islam, but neither should they come in the way of the solidarity of the students with each other, putting aside our other different backgrounds. Otherwise, students’ unionism could not be realized, resulting in student activism to not come into fruition at best, because actual social and political changes implied by ‘student activism’ entail enough pressure from students as one collective population.
Many issues affecting students these days such as the stark digital divide when education goes online, unpaid internship, unaffordable housing, etc. are not new, but they are set on fire when the Movement Control Order (MCO) comes around since COVID-19 pandemic hits. Many students’ bodies would react by releasing statements after statements of dissatisfaction when any policies made in the higher education ecosystem sideline the students’ welfare; yet issues keep recurring while the statements garner often nothing more than retweets. Initiatives grow one after another to help our students during this unprecedented time, but why is it still taking longer than it should for the relevant authorities especially MOHE to attune to the grassroots reality?
I believe the crucial relationship among stakeholders in the higher education ecosystem of Malaysia must be reconsidered. When student activism is mentioned, it is necessary, obviously, to have students in the picture; yet it is not sufficient to not ask how other entities in the ecosystem are affecting the way our students go about politically. Again, the word ‘political’ should not be read only in the partisan light or another, but in terms of the power and autonomy students get to hold to advance students’ interests and address social justice beyond the campus fences.
This dynamic relationship among the stakeholders in the higher education ecosystem means that there are roles which students, academicians, university administrators, and ministerial policymakers must carry out to achieve the desired ideal equilibrium of student empowerment. After all, is not part of the aim of the National Education Philosophy (Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan) to elevate efforts which contribute “towards further developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner”?
I believe the foundation of a healthier higher education ecosystem would be granting the full political and financial autonomy to higher education institutions. This is part of the process of empowering its stakeholders like students. The issues at the core of the systems must be reformed by those who are in power to do it. The systemic issues around our higher education institutions and its campus politics include but are not limited to the following.
Firstly, Malaysia is still left behind compared to developed countries in legislating provisions in the act which governs our higher education institutions necessary to facilitate the shared governance between these institutions and autonomous students’ unions on respective campuses.
Secondly, the system has yet to empower students to control our own societal activities, budgets, and fundraising as hindered by the highly bureaucratic process which often takes months to channel the money necessary to fuel any plans. I have come across many fellow students who have creative solutions to community problems who often become discouraged by the process, because some pressing issues like of mental health need immediate actions, not another few months of waiting. Some students would opt to collaborate with external parties to cover the financial needs, despite the resources at university, as students have to pay for the activity fees anyway. The system should be more friendly and encouraging for students to use these resources to be self-driven changemakers (which can also be read as ‘student activists’).
Thirdly, there has been a lack of coordination of students’ advocacy movements and projects, especially the ones which address the need for better policies or solutions to social problems. There is no single agency yet (read: platform), which collects data and churns it into information useful for students to identify existing advocacy movements or projects, and foster opportunities of collaborations and partnerships. This silo environment unresolved by the current system exacerbates student activism because, seeing the many social problems around us, students are likely to start their own initiatives from scratch instead of contributing to existing initiatives which echo the same causes. My point is, more often than not, existing initiatives could grow more effectively with more volunteers, promotions, or sponsorships contributing to them, but when new initiatives of basically the same mechanisms come along, they seem to compete with one another instead of complementing each other. At least, some information exchange on good practices will help other changemakers to not repeat some mistakes or better improve their strategies.
The above systemic issues still run deep in our higher education institutions today, directly and indirectly affect the values and attitudes of students. To resolve them, I believe it must come hand-in- hand that policymakers should legislate the necessary laws, while students in Malaysia should start to unionize and be united on the basis of our common identity of being students so our voice is strong to defend our students’ rights and responsibilities. This will be the antidote to the current paralyzed culture where only those affected by certain students’ issues like unpaid internship would come out and express their grievances, yet not backed by other students in the population who might not face the same issue.
Once this student voice is united or in the process of it, then we must make this student voice count at every level of policymaking in the higher education ecosystem, because there is where effective change happens. Many issues that we face as students have one underlying root cause: the lack of effective student representation and participation in policymaking. This explains why some policies seem to be so out-of-touch with the grassroots reality because student voice is not given duly importance by the law in the first place. Since IIUM Student Union was established, our student representatives have been invited to several important decision-making bodies of the university. What we do differently recently also is that, IIUMSU makes it a practice to bring our students’ voice in the decision-making, thus the surveys we consistently make and autonomously analyse so we can be objective in bringing the truth to the decision-making tables.
The urgency for a more proactive relationship between these stakeholders in the higher education ecosystem is made apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic. The implementation of online teaching and learning is an important case, where win-win outcomes can be achieved when all stakeholders get
involved in the policymaking process. Although the COVID-19 vaccines may be on the way, sooner or later, we have to prepare the whole community of the higher education ecosystem to brace for impacts from the new norms in the post-COVID-19 world. More so with new futures of education to create, it is important and urgent to transform our campus politics in order to revolutionize student activism by realizing systemic change in the higher education institutions of Malaysia.
Disclaimer: Views are my own and they do not represent any entities I am part of. Feedback and criticism are most welcomed at email@example.com
Caretaker Vice President at IIUM Student Union 2020/2021