Sunday February 27, 2011
Understanding the divide
By RICHARD LIM
The recent campus elections have put the spotlight on the good, bad and ugly of student politics.
IF this year’s “colourful” campus elections were anything to go by, it was learnt that conventional predictions can sometimes go wrong – especially when the unconventional is served.Drama and unpredictability were certainly the Zeitgeist moments at the polls and this year’s edition of the annual affair was tainted by pre-election protests, smashed doors, a missing candidate, fistfights and blood.To recap: It started at Universiti Malaya (UM) when anti-establishment Pro-Mahasiswa students scuffled with security personnel at the varsity’s Perdanasiswa complex in a protest, resulting in a broken door.
A close affair was on the cards and both the pro-establishment and anti-establishment camps were neck-and-neck until Masturah Abu Bakar – a Pro-Mahasiswa candidate – disappeared at the tail-end of the campaigning period.Although the nature of her 30-hour disappearance still remains unclear – the case was classified as “missing person” rather than a “kidnapping” by the police – her disappearance and reappearance – uncannily on polling day – resulted in a wave of sympathy votes.The sudden shift in momentum saw the Pro-Mahasiswa front edging their pro-establishment Penggerak Mahasiswa rivals (Pro-Aspirasi in other campuses) by 23 to 16 seats on Feb 21, making a clean sweep of UM’s nine general seats in the process.
The front’s UM win saw them returning to power after a one-year hiatus and the delirium continued long into the night when they pulled off a 23-14 win at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).
Banking on one last crash, Pro-Mahasiswa students descended on Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) to join their defeated “brethren” who were protesting against the varsity’s student affairs department.
Emboldened by their swelling numbers, the students surged the varsity’s main administrative block and an automated glass door was smashed. Tempers flared and a number of students got into fistfights with security personnel.Although the situation calmed and the protest coordinators ended the rally on a reconciliatory note – perhaps due to the increasing police presence on campus – the damage was done and many questions were raised as each side picked up the pieces – literally.
The first thing that probably came to mind was a one-word question: Why?
What could possibly drive Malaysian students to take to the streets?
Some Pro-Mahasiswa leaders were quick to pounce, claiming that the front had enough after years of “oppression” where high-handed treatment from student affairs officials, the introduction of manipulative electoral processes and the stifling of democracy on campus, among others, were used.
Taking pride in their victories at three campuses, their traditional stronghold International Islamic University Malaysia being the other, Pro-Mahasiswa leaders said that events in Malaysia – protests included – was just a microcosm of youth uprisings around the world.“What we see today is the same thing as what is going on in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya,” said Gabungan Islam Se-Malaysia president Ahmad Syazwan Muhammad Hassan.“The youth played a key role in disposing dictators and despots in those countries, and the students in Malaysia are starting by returning democracy to our campuses.”Now, such rhetoric may be appealing to some, but the protests at UM and UPM were no Tahrir Square revolts – far from it.If the Egyptian population is to be used as a benchmark, then 40% of the protesting students here do not live on less than US$2 (RM6.11) per day, and 30% of them are certainly not illiterate.Legitimate unhappiness at the polls may persist but apart from that, the social conditions are hardly “intolerable”.
Allowed access to the nation’s best varsities, the Pro-Mahasiswa students enjoy heavily-subsidised fees and those who still find difficulty have study loans to fall back on.Moving on, the composition of the crowds at UM and UPM were deceiving. Yes, the protesters were up in arms but there was a clear dichotomy when push came to shove.
While virtually all anti-establishment students rooted for a show of force, most were only content to do so without being in the middle of it, and many were seen languishing at the back – even behind the pressmen – when things turned ugly.In this light, the preconditions for a revolution of sorts is sorely lacking and for those who read too much into the Pro-Mahsiswa’s three-university haul, it is worth noting that pro-establishment students won 17.And as far as self-elevation goes, the protest coordinators can hardly pass as messiahs as the intentional damage to university property makes them very naughty boys – or girls – instead.
Removing the wedge
Despite the unruly fracas, it is unfair to write off all Pro-Mahasiswa students off as no-gooders who prowl the corridors of universities, on the lookout for trouble and opportunity.Some agreed that there are much better ways of venting disgruntlement than taking to the streets and even more expressed remorse after they witnessed the unruly incident at UPM.“We didn’t expect things to get so bad,” said a shaken Wong Swee Nee, the secretary of the Malaysia Youth and Students Democratic Movement. “We didn’t want anyone to be hurt.”Beneath all the introspection, however, it must be said that the divide on campus – which occurs at least once a year – must be addressed.The assumption that pro-establishment groups should always be at the fore has to go and although vacating such a gilded past may be hard, it is imperative to do so in order to ensure a fair and transparent electoral process.Stability at universities cannot come at the expense of students and clamping down on the smallest hint of dissent may be counter-productive as the perceived “victimisation” of students will long resonate in the hearts of their peers.This much was said by Chris (not his real name), at UKM. Now pursuing his postgraduate studies, Chris was always involved in campus politics and he started off as a pro-establishment supporter before becoming disillusioned in his final year.Is the rule of law, which was conceived to safeguard and nurture human life – more important than life itself and all that it entails?” he asked “Things were so much easier for us compared to the anti-establishment students. I understand that university administrators may find them harder to deal with, but there should be no double standards.”
Similar sentiment reigned at UM where students took note of the marked disparity in the fortunes of the two student factions, and this became more evident at the height of the poster wars.
It was the first time the varsity was allowing coloured campaign material and a number of students remarked that the pro-establishment candidates looked “too perfect” in their yellow banners.In contrast, the Pro-Mahasiswa front stuck to the unfashionable black-and-white code of yesteryear and in many cases, the coloured portraits of their candidates were so small that onlookers had to squint. And unlike the nice fonts employed by their “rivals”, anti-establishment candidates relied on often messy handwriting.This became their passport to project a more proletarian message and their apparent lack of funds was the caricature drummed into the university populace.A sense of sympathy was already prevalent in certain quarters and Masturah’s disappearance later served as the tipping point.
Like any contest, this year’s campus polls had its fair mix of winners and losers.
However, this year’s contest had quite a few shades of gray as bad winners and sore losers stuck out like sore thumbs.UM’s Pro-Mahasiswa front made it a point to gloat over the “few” seats their rivals obtained if their 11 no-contest wins were subtracted while their counterparts at UPM lost the moral high ground when they resorted to violence.On the other hand, the Pro-Aspirasi camp at UPM did themselves no favours when they confronted the anti-establishment crowd, potentially intensifying tensions.It must be noted, however, that sense and sensibility prevailed in certain cases and UPM vice-chancellor Prof Radin Umar Radin Sohadi was one of the few clear winners.
Still a new face in UPM, the vice-chancellor remained above the fray throughout and he even took the time to meet the protesters twice to defuse tensions.“Your presence here is not wrong but please be rational,” he told the students, adding that their gathering was a healthy practice of expression.His gesture was received well by the Pro-Mahasiswa front and shouts of Hidup NC (Long live the vice-chancellor) reverberated through the main administrative building.
Earlier at UM, Penggerak Mahasiswa chairman Mohd Asri Zulkifli delivered one of the most lasting impressions of the emotionally-charged week.Surrounded by his Penggerak Mahasiswa supporters, Mohd Asri looked on as their rivals celebrated wildly. A number of pro-establishment students were clearly unhappy but Mohd Asri ensured that everything remained under control by congratulating the Pro-Mahasiswa front on the loud hailer.“This election was closely contested and I would like to congratulate the winners,” he said. “Let us applaud them and may all of us refrain from any provocation.”What happened next was simply magnanimous as the Penggerak Mahasiswa camp applauded the victors who left shortly after to celebrate at the chancellory.
The gesture was harder than it looked. Disappointed after losing out in a contest that initially appeared to be heading their way, Mohd Asri was weary but when chaos was the easier option, the leader decided to add credence to the Penggerak Mahasiswa ethos: That Universiti Malaya was indeed one – at the end of the day.
Unfortunately, such scenes were few in number and beyond the euphoria, it’s high time for the candidates – regardless of faction – to end all drama and look elsewhere if they are to come good on their mandate to serve their fellow students.And judging from last week’s drama, the mirror would be a good place to start.