The Malaysian Students’ Leaders Summit XII will be held on the 11th of August. Session 2 of MSLS XII is entitled Student Activism – Revisiting the Society’s Catalyst of Change. This article focuses on a the overarching role of young people to initiate and sustain social progress.

by Shen-Li Teh

Throughout history, young people—in particular students—have mobilised themselves to form a powerful driving force behind social or political change all over the world. Because of the different social, political and cultural circumstances in which vocal civic participation by young people takes place, student activism is a broad term that encompasses any subject matter, size or success.

To provide historical context about student activism and its effects, many movements that resulted in concrete social or political effects such as amendments to national policies or ousted leaders were led by students. In the United States, the 1960 Greensboro sit-in where young African-Americans sat at a segregated lunch counter despite being denied service and its form of non-violent protest brought attention to the civil rights movement, which ultimately led to the desegregation and integration of African Americans. More recently, in South Korea, students made up a large section of hundreds of thousands of protestors that forced their president out of office after months of protest against allegations of abuse of power and bribery were brought to light in a political scandal. These non-violent demonstrations and their permanent effects were propelled by student mobilization who demanded changes to the broken or corrupt system.

However, such movements spearheaded by students do not always fare well. The most famous example would be the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, where students protesting in demand for a democratic government were fired at by Chinese troops in Beijing. To this day, the Chinese state does not openly acknowledge the atrocities committed—discussion of the event and online searches are highly censored, and the National Museum standing in Tiananmen Square contains no mention of this powerful event, though a 2017 article by BBC put the estimated toll of deaths at “at least 10 000”.

However, the Tiananmen Square protest also resulted in one of the most iconic and politically charged images of the 20th century: that of a single, unarmed man staring down a line of military tanks. That image captured the world’s attention, and all of the Chinese student protestors’ youthful idealism, passion and confidence that an individual standing up to the state can make a difference.

What of the youth in today’s Malaysia? Do we also have that deep belief in principles of democracy that allows us to stare down the state even when it threatens us to fall in line with its ideas? In Malaysia, the general stereotype seemed to be that young Malaysians were apathetic or rather, deeply cynical when it came to politics, as seen in the #UndiRosak movement on Twitter, propagated by a number of social media users who saw the recent general elections as a matter of choosing between two evils.

However, it must be kept in mind that the Malaysian state has consistently depoliticized the youth. Only last year, JPA’s director-general stated in an interview that students could lose their JPA scholarships for “spread(ing) lies without supporting statistics to taint the Government’s image”. Though it would be reasonable for a scholarship to be withdrawn if a student had been involved in criminal activity or the like, the director-general’s statement sounded like a vaguely worded threat to students dependent on JPA’s funding to refrain from any criticism of the government. JPA scholarship contracts also contain a clause, namely Clause 5.6 (a): “The student shall not take part directly or indirectly in any political or any-governmental activity.” This is vaguely worded enough that even being involved in a peaceful protest against the government could possibly constitute a breach of that particular clause and lose the student the scholarship.

This has even been systematically implemented at a legislative level through the Universities and University College Act 1971 (UUCA) which curbs and controls student engagement with political activities in the campus, or any society, organization, or group deemed unsuitable by the Board. Tun Dr Mahathir, who was Education Minister in 1974, previously defended UUCA as it was supposed to allow undergraduates to focus on their studies. Perhaps, in a realization of the Act’s vaguely oppressive nature, the newly minted Education Minister Dr Mazslee Malik under Tun Mahathir’s new Pakatan Harapan government has recently pledged to abolish the UUCA. This is an encouraging indicator of possible progress, but will still be a baby step in the long road ahead for student activists in Malaysia.

But for every internet user who called for #UndiRosak, there is another who was involved with the political process of the general election and its possible implications for Malaysia’s future generations. Despite many students being unable to vote in this year’s general election, they were not dissuaded from participating in discussion according to the amount of information disseminated and dissected by the youth concerning politics on social media. This is no surprise. 22 million out of Malaysia’s 38 million people are on social media and 88% of the 25-34 year olds access the internet daily. Access to information is mastered by the younger generation, and the digital natives of this age are more likely to be be politically active online where sharing an article or tweeting a stance is easier than the traditional forms of protest, such as taking to the streets.

Student activism as a concept evolves according to young people who mold it to further their purpose of change, and for this generation, student activism has been facilitated greatly by technology. In protests in Bangladesh demanding safer streets that were met with tear gas and a government shutdown on media, young Bangladeshis have turned to social media to share accounts or images that expose brutality and instances of sexual assault on female protestors, utilising this generation’s access to technology to push back against the state’s authority. New tools such as the internet have galvanised, educated and united young people in common causes. Awareness of issues that plague society is at its peak with the near-instantaneous exchange of information through technology and its following conversation, which encourages and coordinates movements to achieve goals of visibility and change. That has been no clearer than the student movement for gun control reform in the United States after multiple school shootings that left 31 students dead as of May 2018, where outraged high school students all over the country coordinate speeches and organised walkouts under the movement March for Our Lives through the usage of social media platforms.

With new alternatives to the mainstream media outlets that traditionally controlled by a certain demographic—older, male, with similar political ideals, or in Malaysia’s case, owned directly by the previous government’s component parties—access to information can no longer be controlled or contained by the state, and students are using that to their advantage to spread their message and calls for action. And perhaps, with the new government’s promise for freedom of speech, the youth can finally have their voices be heard.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.

This article was originally published in

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