Few Malaysians remember the powerful student movement of the 1970s, in an era when everyone in Malaysia relied on the mainstream media for news. Student activism, which most frequently championed the poor and the marginalised communities, forced former PM Mahathir Mohamad to emasculate the student movement with his Universities and University Colleges Act (1971).
Today, student activism appears to be on the rise again, but too slowly, it seems. There are, definitely, Malaysian students actively championing the causes of the rakyat. They may be studying in Kuala Lumpur, London, Melbourne or New York, but their message is clear: they are no longer prepared to tolerate oppression.
However, for every Malaysian student taking part in a protest or attending a talk given by someone other than a government official, another hundred will have a long list of excuses for not participating. Apathy tops the list. For overseas students, violence is the least of their concerns. They fear the Special Branch operatives, busy taking photos or videos of them.
Student voices represent the leadership of tomorrow, and their pursuit of a vision will help shape the nation. Two students, James Chai and Mukhzani Alia, were so concerned by student apathy that they have formed their own organisation, the Malaysian Progressives United Kingdom (MPUK), to engage students in discussions on Malaysian issues. Their views are shared below.
1. Why did a group of students and graduates form MPUK earlier this year?
We formed MPUK to encourage Malaysian students to appreciate the democratic processes of the UK, to become activists, and to be more aware of politics in Malaysia.
There are many reasons for their apathy when it comes to Malaysian socio-economic issues. They are disillusioned by politics, the personalities involved, the feudalism and money politics. Many think that they are unable to change things. Although their parents and their sponsors would probably prefer that they concentrate on their studies, we feel that there is time for them to engage in a bit of activism.
2. How will you make students become more involved in Malaysian issues?
We intend to split politics into easy-to-understand, interesting and engaging parts. There are six separate projects: interviews, news stories, volunteering, student activism, collaboration and research. Our primary focus will be on Malaysia, but we will attempt to understand the democratic processes of mature systems, like in the UK.
3. Why should students take an interest in politics?
Students will have the power to change the country, but they need to be able to make informed decisions. The culture of engaging in politics is fundamental in any maturing democracy and in nation building. Malaysian students are used to learning by rote. We want to encourage critical thinking and make them better citizens.
4. Scholarship holders seem to join one student body and are limited in their political understanding. Do you want them to learn about the political organisations that are not part of the government?
Learning about the other parties will give them a clearer picture of the political landscape. The big Malaysian media organisations are biased towards the ruling party. We aim to stop the polarisation of Malaysians.
5. Tell us more about MPUK and its membership.
The offices of President and Deputy President are held by students to signify that MPUK is a student movement. Membership is open to all, including graduates. Out motive is to attract talented and dedicated individuals who are willing to work hard to promote youth activism.
Our projects are unique and we are not influenced by any political body. We hope to reach out to as many students as possible by using Malay in some of our communication.
6. Why do you think MPUK will succeed?
It takes dedicated individuals to change a culture. Our strong leadership, coupled with perseverance and resilience, will help motivate student activism and spread our message.
7. Do you think publishing your interviews with Malaysian politicians and NGO representatives will encourage students to get involved in activism?
We aim to make politics interesting and accessible to students, but more importantly, we hope to provide good, interesting interviews, which will be shared online. There are three phases to our work: generating interest, engaging in politics, youth activism.
Our activities include the dissemination of research publications, volunteering, debates and fortnightly informal discussions on critical news.
8. Is teleconferencing, which you said would enable students to engage in online debates, a viable proposition for engaging with students?
Good, interesting interviews, which are made accessible online, will empower students to contribute to the discussion. MPUK respects everyoneâ€™s point of view, even those who just want to listen.
9. Fear prevents students from attending events at which opposition politicians speak. How will you reassure students that they have nothing to fear?
Our work, on virtual platforms, does not require students to identify themselves. There is anonymity and a physical presence is not required. Our series of interviews is accessible without the viewersâ€™ identity being known.
Fear disappears as soon as the threat is removed. Ignorance remains, whether the threat is there or not.
10. When will your interviews begin?
We made our first recording on the 7th of October. The interview was with Marina Mahathir. We aim to interview inspirational and courageous people who generate interest and who can educate our youth.
11. Why is your logo a purple butterfly?
The butterfly symbolises independence and the freedom of the mind. The ripple effect of the butterfly design should inspire more to join our culture. The circle in the logo represents inclusiveness, whilst purple implies moderation and acceptance of diversity.
NB: Please join me in wishing MPUK success in getting more students to be aware of issues in Malaysia and contribute towards resolving some of these issues
This article appeared in FreeMalaysiaToday *FMT) on 10 October 2015, under another title.
Photo credits to FMT