Monday, August 06, 2007

'Booing' of the UM VC

Thanks to Johnleemk for his comments on the First Annual Malaysian Student Leaders Summit 2007. Part of his comment was the following: "Today was more interesting - I think it's quite difficult to have confidence in Rafiah Salim and Mustapha Mohamad (especially the former) after how they performed today. Both gave ridiculous answers to questions on academic freedom at home and abroad; Rafiah made this ridiculous proposal that we send boys to "paramilitary" (her words) boarding schools. For a moment we thought she was joking." Perhaps, it was in this context that the NST reported that she was booed at this summit.

The NST reported that:

Boos and catcalls greeted Datuk Rafiah Salim when she said public university students had the freedom to express their thoughts and ideas.

Several hundred dissenting voices rang out when the Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor, when taking a question from the floor, said there was "no such thing as students being unable to address their concerns".

Hearing their disapproval, Rafiah retorted: "Behaviour like this is exactly what causes people not to respect you. You won’t even give me a hearing. And you won’t get respect.

"If you behave like that, nobody will listen to you because it is not worth listening. You are not respecting others."

I was a little surprised that the NST reported that the UM VC was booed. Usually, something like that would be conveniently 'left out' in favor of more positive news, perhaps focusing on the Minister in attendance, in this case, Tok Pa, the Minister for Higher Education.

I was even more pleasantly surprised that 'several hundred dissenting voices rang out' when the UM VC said that 'public university students had the freedom to express their thoughts and ideas'. While UKEC organized forums in the UK might attract crowds which can be boisterous and opinionated, I would have thought that the fact that this summit was held in Malaysia would have held many 'tongues' in check. Thus, the fact that those in attendance (including JohnLeeMK) would be brave enough to offer their dissent in a vocal fashion is something refreshing.

I would certainly laugh at the notion that there is freedom of expression among students in public universities in Malaysia. The UUCA puts many restrictions on student activities and organizations (including the ability to join political parties and volunteer for political activities) and student elections are notoriously 'rigged' and 'controlled' by the university authorities.

The UM VC should have realized that when she says ludicrous things in front of a crowd that is intelligent and is not afraid to show their contempt for such ludicrous statements, 'booing' is the first thing that she should expect. But I'm sure that she didn't see that coming, probably anticipating a far more docile crowd, perhaps similar to the crowd that she is used to in UM.

Sometimes I wonder if people like the UM VC really believe that there is freedom of expression in public universities in Malaysia or that they say this because they have to or perhaps they have said this so often that they start to believe this fiction.


k.Rizzuan, Director of Strategy for the MSLS organizing committee said...

Dear author,

First and foremost, thank you for your kind attention on the UKEC-organized event over the weekend. It is the aim of the UKEC to create an ambience that is conducive to discussions regarding nation-building for the collective betterment of our country.

However, it is in my strong views that some of the points that you have laid out are flawed, disorganized in its flow of logic and most unfortunately, unfair.

And here are my contentions;

1. Your comment,"I would have thought that the fact that this summit was held in Malaysia would have held many 'tongues' in check" is rather misleading. Through the course of the build-up to the event, the organizers have presented its proposal to the Ministry of Higher Education and the greenlight was signalled. The last words of the minister before this event kick-started was that it is important to continuously push for an environment which encourage positive discussion on nation-building issues.

2. As a participant and most importantly as a close observer of the 'unity in diversity' forum by the VC of UM and professor khoo, I hold that the words 'ludicrous things' are misplaced if it was to be connotated to what Datuk Rafiah has talked about, especially on the freedom of expression in universities. She maintained that she has always been an accessible person and an open VC, and her arguments were such that she was a proponent of the freedom of expression. This was also confirmed by a law student from the UM who has attended the event.

3. I am also of the opinion that it is unfair for you to pass your judgments on the forum between Datuk Rafiah and prof Khoo when you yourself did not attend it. Between the two, they have insightfully shared with the participants the problems that are facing the social fabric of Malaysia and did not mince their words in doing so. It was certainly an honest account of things and an enlightening experience.

4. Through my discussions with other participants, many believe that confidence on our Minister of Higher Education is still running high. The education forum by Tan Sri Wan Zahid revealed that the ministry is reviewing all acts relating to higher education and revealing that reform is well on the way. This was confirmed by the Minister that it is "nearby its finish line". And certainly, to think that boos and catcalls symbolize low confidence towards the VC a thought that is lost in logic. A woman in such place as Datuk Rafiah must be ready to face criticisms and such was her grace yesterday. Another UM participant who is part of the pro-pembangkang movement shared with me that it is his hope that the government extend her tenure as VC.

I hope that my insights will stand the author in good stead.

The Malaysian Student Leader Summit is another step taken by this young nation towards complementing the freedom of speech. I vouch for that and believe you me; freedom of speech and expression is nowhere near being a fiction.

Thank you

johnleemk said...

I agree with Rizzuan that a more nuanced approach has to be taken to be fair to all parties. (A substantial amount of what was said on other issues like ethnic diversity and harmony was sensible and well-reasoned, if obviously "spun" in an optimistic light.) However, with respect to the issue of freedom of expression alone - and probably gender-related issues as well - I feel that both Rafiah and Tok Pa did not adequately handle themselves.

I plan to write more on my view of what transpired later on, so I hope I don't repeat myself too much. In my view, Rafiah Salim may be a proponent of freedom of expression, but it is dishonest of her to assert that students have such freedom. I was also not convinced by her argument that students don't and shouldn't have the right to be activists.

Anonymous said...

"...that students don't and shouldn't have the right to be activists..."

Does activist here refer to anti-government movement, whether politically, environmentally, or constitutionally? In what sense is she refering to when she said that students shouldn't? Being an activist is not something as easy as one can think of, definitely not as easy as shouting and rallying like what our UMNO Youths like to do.

Shien Jin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shien Jin said...

I wasn't at the forum that time, but I agree with the UM VC that it is immature and disrespectful to boo the speakers, even if what they said were untrue. We have Q&A sessions to respectfully challenge assertions of the speakers, and even without it, shouldn't we form opinions (on the truth of the matter) ourselves?

By supporting the action of booing, we put ourselves in a situation where students who boo contentious, but worthwhile ideas (like the diplomatic recognition of Israel) are placed as heros instead of immature kids.

Kian Ming said...

Dear Rizzuan,

Thanks for your clarifications. Just wondering about point 3.

"3. I am also of the opinion that it is unfair for you to pass your judgments on the forum between Datuk Rafiah and prof Khoo when you yourself did not attend it. Between the two, they have insightfully shared with the participants the problems that are facing the social fabric of Malaysia and did not mince their words in doing so. It was certainly an honest account of things and an enlightening experience."

What exactly transpired between Datuk Rafiah and Prof Khoo (I'm assuming that you're refering to Prof Khoo Kay Khim)? I don't remember referring to him in my post. Is there something about their exchange that we should know about?

Anonymous said...

As a participant of MSLS '07 and a proud student of the Universiti
Malaya, I would like to add my two sen worth about the boo-ing of my VC. First and foremost, I feel that NST has made a meal out of a relatively insignificant event from two days of a brave and remarkable meeting of Malaysian student minds. I realise the noble intention of putting the spotlight on the unsatisfactory state of affairs in most of our local universities, but the aforementioned article has unfairly placed our beloved VC in a negative light. 'Several hundred dissenting voices' is a hyperbolic
exagegration of the tens of voices which rang out at the beginning of Datuk Rafiah's answer to a question posed.

The more pertinent observation that I would like to put forth is that (possibly just in the context of UM) my VC might not be entirely wrong. There is room and space for students to express their views. Of course, I am not ignorant enough to not see the restrictions (many of them unecessary) imposed upon societies and student bodies in local unis. However, much of these restrictions result from the implementation of university policy by university staff who at times seem to difficult to reason with. What I am trying to say is that even though students do not have it easy, it can still be done. For example, in UM the Law Faculty students have used formal letters, student representatives and even memoranda to express their concerns to our VC. And I am glad to say that she has made an effort to address them.

The point that I am trying to make is that the UUCA has done its damage to the student population, not through the enforcement of its penal provisions, but by the eery form of fear and suppression it breeds. Far too often has it been used by students to excuse their own grudging silence without even an examination of what the Act really prohibits. Its true, we can't picket and demonstrate (in fact we can't do this anywhere in Malaysia)but this is definitely not the only wat to put a point across. As long as there is a fair and reasonable ear at the top, as is the case in UM, all is not lost.

Thus, I would like to echo DYTM Raja Dr. Nazrin Shah in suggesting that in addition to obtaining a copy of the Federal Constitution, please also get a copy of the UUCA 1971 and the relevant disciplinary rules to examine for one's self what exactly is prohibited and what is still within the bounds of this antiquated piece of legislation. One would be pleased to find that its bark might actually be worse than its bite, considering the terms therein have not been put through the fire of judicial interpretation yet. Its true we are not allowed to show 'support, sympathy or objection' to any political party, but I'm sure that provison does not encompass all concerns of today's student. The good news is that Dato' Mustapa has told us that the proposed amendments to the UUCA are nearing the 'finishing line' and will be tabled at the right time. Maybe then the ideal Malaysian student will not have to be apolitical.

Another interesting thing is how fervent Dato' Mustapa was in disassociating the government from UUM's dresscode policy. He stated plainly that the government's stand was that dressing had to be 'decent', not even formal. I wonder if UUM's VC himself had to find out about the absurd policy in the press, instead of directly from his own students. And if the good people of UUM would like a further relaxation of the dresscode, the first thing to do is- ask for it.

-Standing Tall for UM-

Anonymous said...

Is booing undemocratic? It is as much the right to boo, demonstrate and heckle if the rights of free speech and democracy is upheld. Even Bush accepts booing of his speeches even though he dislike it personally
How much is University College act to restrict or encourage freedom of speech?

Anonymous said...

First and foremost, the use of the term "beloved" gave me goose bumps. Especially in respect of a VC who was in office for hardly 2 years, I believe.

It is I think a manifestation of the culture of idol worship, which in every instance evidences a lack of intellectual agility in the student population. Further evidence of this culture can be seen in the VC almost demanding respect from the audience (from what I have read in this post, so I stand corrected on this point).

While the dismal state of UM is certainly not the fault of VC Rafiah by any measure, I have seen nothing substantial being achieved in her short tenure for her to be termed "beloved".

Booing is never the correct behaviour in ANY circumstance, but VC Rafiah's reaction as I read it is ample evidence of either a lack of confidence and sophistication on her part to rise above such behaviour and ignore it, or frustration on her part in terms of how things are not getting along to her liking, or both. Either way, for a person in her position, she should have just ignored the boos if it comes only from a small section of the attendees.

I read in the papers that the PM of New Zealand gets booed by students at the University of Canterbury last year when I was there, but just continued with her speech as a person of confidence and purpose would & should.

If a person of the standing of a VC of what is still perceived to be our premier university is unable to rise above mob behaviour, and instead attempts at a repartee, I think that is evidence that our entire social structure is in serious ruin.

As I have always maintained, forget about our universities which are, except in the minds of the die-hard users of terms like "beloved", beyond redemption. The ONLY way forward for the sake and the love of our future generations is to go back to our primary schools and teach human values in an environment devoid of racial and religious slant and taunts.

Is that even remotely possible with our present administration?

BTW, I am also a graduate of UM, and no less proud of it than any other of my vintage. But I "stand tall" for UM by my thoughts and actions everyday, without the need to profess endearment. However, it is unfortunate that whenever I mentioned that I am a UM graduate, I felt obligated to also mention the year of graduation.

Chen Chow said...

I fully agree that NST choosing to highlight the "10 second" incident of booing, is not bringing justice to the whole event of Malaysian Student Leaders Summit. What should have been highlighted (at least in my opinion), would be on how the students, who come from diverse background, from pre-u to PhD holders, from those studying in many different countries, as well as transcend all races, religions, gender, and geographical region, post mostly constructive questions to the speakers. I would say that majority of the questions are posed, because of students' concern about this country.

I would say that I was personally amazed by how the students are able to look at each issue objectively and support or rebut the points constructively, with at least a try to give some reasonings to the points given. Students are not divided by any line, and each person, reacts to each idea, based on their objective opinion. That's what I think that this summit is a success. It manages to allow Malaysians from all walks of life to look at the issue objectively and voice out. Every participant is given room to voice out (of course, there are some sessions that only a limited number of questions can be taken due to time constraint). But there is no censorship of questions. Everyone is able to speak their mind, and there are also 3 sessions of group discussions for students to further discuss about the issues too.

And I think it is great that after the Summit, the topics brought for discussion there is still being discussed by fellow Malaysian youth in various platforms. That's a positive side.

Agus Tak Bagus said...

with regards to datuk rafiah salim and freedom of expression in UM, at least datuk rafiah is considerably more sensible when compared to dato razali agus ( the new VC of UNISEL! wohoo!!! thank goodness he is gone ).

well, at least UM can start afresh especially now that the biggest enemy to any form of freedom in UM ( such as freedom of expression, freedom of establishing societies, freedom of 'opening a friendster account' etc ) is GONE GONE GONE.

poor Unisel students...

Anonymous said...

I thot it was UNMO putting razali agus into unisel??
Guess Khir Toyo must have his say in this!

Anonymous said...

Boo-ing is of course allowed in a free country. However, please be reminded tha boo-ing is a mere indication of bad taste
As students of higher education, it is my firm belief that such behaviour although unforbidden, tarnishes the status of others who are not indulgent is such vulgar reactions.