This week has been rife with student politics – as a result of the Kongres Maruah Melayu (Malay Dignity Congress) held last week. I am one of the many netizens who has been following this situation as closely as I can.
I am a graduate of a local university. Public institutions are steeped in tradition and etiquette. The culmination of this tradition is during the convocation. This is an event (that is supposed to be) filled with mutual respect and honour. For those of us who managed to get a placing in a public institution, this event is meant to have a lot of meaning (forgive me for my bluntness, but when I say “those of us”, I do mean “non-Muslims”). I must confess that I was not too happy during my own convocation. I valued my education – still do – and my lecturers – some of whom were very knowledgeable and serious in providing the best for all of us. However, I did not feel anything close to a sense of accomplishment during my similarly conducted convocation, perhaps due to disillusionment. For this reason, the student activist has committed an act wholly unbecoming on the Universiti Malaya (UM) stage. He made it into a farce. Maybe that was necessary, maybe not – that is not for me to argue.
Yes, he was not quite so right in the forum he chose to voice his grievances and his chosen legal representative is a fellow alumnus of my alma mater (who himself is not yet a qualified lawyer – which does not bode well). This is though the very nature of protests. The punishment of withholding his degree, or even the threat of doing so, does not fit the (lack of a) crime. He has so far only been charged under the Penal Code – no conviction. Further that, in itself, is not a basis to withhold his transcript and degree. In fact, in terms of law, there is nothing that allows for it. The relevant one being the University and University College Act 1971, where Section 15D “Suspension of student charged with registrable offence and matters relating to detention, etc” is the only provision that accounts for an offence and the possible consequence. This provision though is for an existing student, and in this case, the student activist is technically no longer a student.
Further and more importantly, the Act provides for the adoption of a prescribed Constitution, which reigns supreme (of which Section 53 is worthy of attention).
This has already been hashed out and analysed by legal minds like former UM law professor Prof Gurdial Singh Nijar. It does appear therefore that the sense of justice and of proper recourse here has been overridden in favour of reactionary actions, of reactionary statements from the National Professors Council. Some sectors of the public sphere have even cited the University of Malaya (Discipline of Student) Rules 1999, which again would not apply in this case as the activist is no longer a student. Although the degree has now been granted to him, the whole debacle, the whole conversation surrounding the withholding of his degree should not have been existing at the outset.
For comparative value, let’s look at Hong Kong for example – where there has been backlash to the protests and the protests themselves are frankly much like a person shooting themselves in the foot – but the Hong Kong government has allowed it because it is an exercise of their right to free speech. This is regardless of the fact that the protests have now turned violent. The whole thing is like watching a ticking time bomb.
Aside from this, Hong Kong is also famous for student protests during convocations. Here, the universities do not threaten to withhold degrees, merely chastise graduating students. My point here is that protests are flagrant, fiery and sometimes unpleasant to be a party of, because that is the purpose of a protest. If we were comfortable, it would not be a protest.
When we look at the UM student, we will all see a different person, some of us would see a fighter, some would see an ungrateful (now) alumnus of the institution. We would though all agree (or we should all) agree that he has done his part as a student of the university, has passed his exams, has done his part to deserve the degree that he so rightfully earned.
As the late Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of United Nations (UN) once said: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family”.
Unsavoury act of protest aside, he has received his education and needs it for his and most likely his family’s progress. There is a concern as to whether an education is only worth the paper it is written on, but unfortunately for all of us – that is the case. To deprive him at this stage is not only unfair – it has no legal founding.
Say what you will about what has become of our education, but do not convict him on charges under the Penal Code – and then have an open discussion – one sans a sense of vengeance.
Parveen Kaur Harnam is a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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