For the young activist in Malaysia, idealism has acquired a sheen of pragmatism
For much of the month of April, student groups in Malaysia marched in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, demanding the abolition of the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN), a student loan scheme that the protesters criticised as an exploitative, anti-poor commercial scheme. Instead of loans with high interest rates, they wanted free education.
But on April 28, when an estimated 100,000 people rallied in the same capital to demand electoral reforms under Bersih 3.0 (the Malay word literally means clean), the vibrant student movement was conspicuous by its absence. In contrast, 11 other cities in Malaysia and 85 cities across 33 countries worldwide registered protests on the day to show solidarity with the cause.
In sharp contrast to the 1960s, the students appear to now be more interested in rallying for pragmatic cost issues. Is student activism in Malaysia no longer driven by ideological struggles? Have the young and passionate passed on the banner to adults, to the middle-class men and women, the likes of whom stood firm for Bersih?
So, what has changed?
Nothing much, according to Dr Oh Ei Sun, academician and a former political secretary to the prime minister of Malaysia.
“I think that the ‘issue-based’ orientation in student activism nowadays does not represent a profound paradigm shift, but rather a clearer and more pragmatic manifestation of the more progressive students’ ideological struggle and concern for nation-building,” he told Asia360 News.
“Instead of fighting for some profoundly idealistic ideologies or some vague notion of nation-building, they are using, for example, a concrete issue such as abolition of PTPTN to highlight their ideological disagreement with the mainstream educational authorities — and also propose their alternative vision for nation-building efforts,” he added.
Choong Pui Yee, a research analyst at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), agrees, and believes the new manifestation is due to an increase in the socio-political awareness and acumen of the present generation.
“Such evolving changes can be attributed to a stronger opposition coalition and an increasingly dynamic civil society movement in Malaysia. Students are now exposed to multiple views and ideas. The alternative media as the platform of information is another factor that contributed to this,” Choong told Asia360 News.
Dr Carmelo Ferlito, a fellow at the Malaysian think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), seconds the role that the combination of technology and media, especially social media, has played in the evolution of the character of student movements in the country.
He goes to the extent of claiming that with the advent of technology, even the concept of nation itself has undergone considerable transformation.
Talking to Asia360 News he said: “The world today is simultaneously both bigger and small than a nation. Bigger: the highest reference points are looked for outside from the nation. Smaller: the real needs they consider urgent are more practical and less ideological. Hence, they don’t involve the concept of a nation.”
“But this utilisation of real-world issues is not anything new,” said Sun. “It has been put into practice in the 1960s and 70s — when the student movements had adopted the cause of alleviation of peasants’ poverty as a means of nation building.”
One of the prime examples of his argument was the Teluk Gong struggle in 1967. In their bid to obtain land for livelihood, a group of poor peasants cleared some forest land in the Teluk Gong region, tilled the land and built houses. Not much later, the government destroyed the crops, demolished the houses and arrested many of the peasants.
The University of Malaya Students Union (UMSU) and the University of Malaya Malay Language Society (PBMUM) denounced the government action and swiftly organised seminars and symposiums to support the peasants’ struggle.
Poverty soon became an important issue in the student struggle in the years after that. It was also the first time that students from different ethnic groups came together, encountering each other’s culture and sharing understanding. This was a great leap for a society highly sensitive to ethnic differences.
The argument is that even present day “real-world issues” like PTPTN are microcosms of the larger ideological, nation-building exercises — and they should be seen as such.
Sun agrees: “I think this [current] issue-orientation is a very healthy and organic direction for student activism in Malaysia, as it provides a sharper focus and a more pragmatic touch to their struggle.”
The only concern, says Ferlito, is that an intensely focused approach can also risk losing sight of the bigger picture. “The new approach of student activism can be both an opportunity and a risk for Malaysia. The opportunity is that a less ideological level can bring out a less ‘partisan’ politics, more oriented to the common good and open to learn from outside. The risk is that the political issues are minimised to practical things and the problem ‘to belong’ to something higher, like the Nation, is forgotten.”
Though Choong of RSIS acknowledges the challenge, she believes that the new manifestation of student activism has more pros than cons.
“Student activism in current days has inspired much more awareness and participation regardless of whether it is issue-based or not. Most importantly, the students are ready to engage and question. This will definitely help the nation to grow,” she said.
And all three of them believe that is what matters ultimately. Students may have ceded some space to the middle class in protests like Bersih but they will continue to remain relevant in the pursuit of a perfect nation.
Ideology just has a new approach now. AR