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Banning opposition leader from Malaysian university demonstrates lack of academic freedom

Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks to students at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur October 27, 2014, as part of a campaign to seek support ahead of his final appeal against a conviction for sodomy
Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks to students at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur October 27, 2014, as part of a campaign to seek support ahead of his final appeal against a conviction for sodomy

REUTERS/Olivia Harris

This statement was issued by the CIJ on 31 October 2014, in response to the UM's banning of the Student Council event featuring Anwar Ibrahim on 27 October 2014.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is concerned with the measures taken by Universiti Malaya (UM) to ban and stop a 27 October 2014 event planned by the Student Council entitled "40 Years: From Universiti Malaya to Jail".

The event, where Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was scheduled to speak, was declared illegal by University Malaya vice-chancellor of student affairs Professor Datuk Dr Rohana Yusof, in a show-cause letter sent to Student Council president Fahmi Zainol. It was stated in the letter that the event would damage the university's image. This was followed by the university requesting its students and staff to leave early on the day of the event due to "electrical issues". The university then proceeded to bar the gates to their premises, leading to the students forcing their way in to attend the event held that night.

This is not the first time that UM has barred people from speaking within its premises. Former Bersih 2.0 co-chairperson Dato' Ambiga Sreevenasan was barred from addressing law students at their Law Careers Convention in March 2014. DAP member of ParliamentTony Pua has also reportedly been barred from speaking at UM on at least three occasions. Filmmaker Fahmi Reza has also been consistently banned from addressing UM students on the history of student activism in Malaysia.

Rohana's reported statement that the event was illegal as the UM Student Council "had not formally registered the programme with the university" does not respect the freedom of expression and assembly that is enshrined in the constitution. Restrictions to these freedoms can only be imposed if they meet the test of being in the interests of national security, public order and public morality; and are shown to be necessary and proportionate. The banning of public personalities without reason, or in fear that allowing them to speak may purportedly tarnish the university's image, is not justified and an indication of the state of independence of the university.

The consistent banning of speakers who are seen as critical of the government and its policies is also an indication of the lack of academic freedom within UM. Despite amendments to the Universities and University Colleges Act and the lifting of the ban against students participating in political parties, it is obvious that more needs to be done to ensure that our public universities can function independently from the government.

There is still too much room for the government to interfere in public universities. Vice-chancellors are still appointed by the education minister, acting on the advice of a committee that the minister himself or herself appoints. The vast majority of the university's board of directors is also appointed by the minister. And the board, in turn, makes rules considered necessary and expedient for student discipline and appoints members to the disciplinary appeals committees which hear appeals from students when disciplinary action is taken against them.

The recent measures taken by UM to prevent Anwar from speaking at the event are damaging to academic freedom and an embarrassment to our public universities. It goes against the very nature of what a university should provide to their students - an environment where critical thinking skills are honed and where a culture of learning is fostered.

CIJ calls on the government to take steps to ensure that our public universities are more independent from the executive. To begin with, appointments of university vice-chancellors and boards of directors should not be made by the education minister. Universities should be self-governing and should not be subject to the political whims of the government of the day. CIJ also calls on UM not to take any action against Student Council president Fahmi Zainol for organising the 27 October 2014 event.

Sonia Randhawa and Jac Kee
Centre for Independent Journalism

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