Thursday, November 18, 2010

The quiet revolution in our campuses

The government is now at an impasse regarding university students and their freedom to take active part in politics.

The reality is that the longer the government tries to unreasonably curtail the fundamental rights of students to express their political preference and take up certain causes deemed "too hot", the more it turns its back on the younger generation. The net result is a huge generation of Malaysians who do not support the government.

Some in the BN now think that the tide is turning against the opposition and that come the next general elections, the ruling coalition will win handsomely. The old ways of doing things can then resume - another five decades of rapid growth with roads paved in gold for the well-connected. In short, the business as usual attitude is slowly but surely creeping back.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, one opposition party seems to be in a mess but this does not mean that Malaysians will have no alternative but to return to the BN. My gut feeling is that many will still vote for any party other than the BN.

There are now so many frontiers for the taking. In cyberspace, those bloggers with their obvious political persuasions are now quite exposed. There are also certain websites whose content is becoming quite predictable. So, the BN's attempt to wage cyber warfare, marginally effective, has now run its course.

Ultimately, the BN has to persuade not by showing how hopeless and unprincipled the opposition is but how progressive and "open" the BN can be. To date, we have very few ministers who can admit they have made mistakes and this is really bad.

Politicians who acknowledge mistakes are not weak but intelligent. So long as they don't keep repeating their mistakes, the public knows that "to err is human".

Towering controversy

The proposed 100-storey building in Kuala Lumpur is now a hot topic in cyberspace. There are over a quarter of a million “friends” who have signed up on Facebook to "oppose" the idea.

The prime minister said that no public funds will be involved but the real question is why should something that does not involve public funds be mentioned in a budget speech? Perhaps, the PM felt that people would be happy with a project that will have a great multiplier effect, not realising that what people want is a better quality of life.

Since the issue has come into the limelight, many politicians have asked the government to stand firm on its plans. But this is the same politicians who support a government that "no longer knows best". Since it was consultation that the government wanted, the Facebook initiative is really something the government should applaud.

azlanAt least a quarter of a million Malaysians care enough to register their opposition. Instead of stopping students from participating in the nationwide "blind date", those who think that they are doing the government a favour should re-think their strategy.

If Permodalan Nasional Berhad has done their calculations and plans, it must mean that PNB has the specialist knowledge to set the record straight. Every development project in a heritage sensitive area (in this case involving Stadium Merdeka and Stadium Negara) will have criticisms.

PNB may want to consider taking their critics head-on. What better way to demonstrate that the government always take into account the opinions of the rakyat than to do a cyber-roadshow arguing the case for the building of the tower?

University officials should also follow suit. Students are and have always been involved with politics. Even at a time of relative peace and prosperity in the early 1990s, we were all politically active. To say that universities are places to get a degree and that, students should "study" and not be involved in politics is to miss the point.

A university is not a factory. Instead, it is a community dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Without critical thinking and the right to express themselves, our universities are producing workers that cannot participate in the knowledge-based economy that we want to build.

Involvement in politics, the space to express critical ideas about governmental policies, serves to keep politicians and governmental stakeholders on their toes. The net result is a better "educated"student body and a more nimble government.

The place where they cut their teeth

Of course, some BN ministers do not agree with the ban on student involvement in politics. They are catching up with their former colleague Anwar Ibrahim, the firebrand student politician of the 1970s.

azlanAnwar once promised to do away with the infamous Universities and University Colleges Act, if he ever became PM. In fact, as an undergraduate, even former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad used to write critical articles exposing the inequity of life in colonial Malaya under the pseudonym Che Det.

Today, we have a situation where the government "bans" students from attending political gatherings but can do nothing if they joined social networking sites to exchange the same ideas on the net. The result is that the BN will continue to lose the votes of the younger generation.

But what is really tragic is that Malaysian politics has been kept hostage to the tried and tested. Without the idealism of the young, the universities will truly become factories and our hopes of becoming a more knowledge-centric society will never take place. Some in government now realize that you cannot have something for nothing.

NONEYes, there are risks involved. Student activism may result in bigger challenges to government policies and may demand higher standards from ministers. The whole KPI for ministers may have to be revised and only the truly competent can stand the acid test.

Down south, knowing that Singapore can only remain relevant if it can become more efficient and knowledge-centric, former PM Lee Kuan Yew used to visit the National University of Singapore to regularly debate with students regarding some key government policies. The same can happen in Malaysia where student leaders will be forced to earn their stripes through a baptism of reality.

Those who want to represent the student body or a particular cause should meet regularly with governmental stakeholders and implementers so that some sort of middle-ground can be created.

The government has to realise that if it does not do a thorough paradigm shift and allow institutions of higher education to fulfill their original purpose of producing thought leaders, the high income aspiration will remain just ambitions. As for the students of today, the scene is looking very good indeed for a quiet revolution.

NEIL KHOR completed his PhD at Cambridge University and now writes occasionally on matters that he thinks requires better historical treatment. He is quietly optimistic about Malaysia's future.

[Source: Mkini]

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