"Our education system must change. Our children are just not curious enough. They must be curious about the world. They must ask questions." These are the words uttered by Deputy Prime Minister (and in-coming Prime Minister) Najib Abdul Razak in his opening speech yesterday at the Seminar on Creating a Blue Ocean in Education and Training Sectors in Kuala Lumpur.
Back in August this year, I attended a forum organised by the network of academic staff associations to discuss suggestions on amendments to be made to the University and University College Act (more widely known by its Malay acronym AUKU – Akta Universiti dan Kolej Universiti). AUKU (in its current state today) was enacted in 1975 to disallow university and college students as well as all academicians from being actively involved in political parties. The bill was tabled by the then Minister of Education Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in the aftermath of the Baling Demonstration organised by student and youth organisations and supported by many academicians. Anwar Ibrahim was allegedly the key youth leader who organised the demonstration, and Dr. Syed Husin Ali (then a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya) was one of the academicians who openly supported the event. Both were swiftly detained under the ISA, and both are now respectively the De-Facto Leader and Deputy President of the main opposition party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (National Justice Party).
In the AUKU forum mentioned above, the keynote address was delivered by a former vice-chancellor of a public university here in Malaysia. Reminiscing on the ‘good old-days’ of pre-AUKU, the former VC described the time when academicians were welcomed to express their critical views on political leaders and current issues effecting the country, student unions very active in various social-political activities, and student leaders celebrities in campuses across the country. But to me, the highlight of his presentation was his response to the oft-repeated statement that "AUKU is important to make sure students concentrate on their studies." His swift respond, "close all campuses... have all academic courses conducted online".
Let me add a bit more to the point above. Since public universities nowadays are pressured to become more financially self-sufficient, all lectures should be pre-recorded in an 'infotainment' format, mass copied in DVDs and then sold to students. Thus, at the start of every semester, after registering for a set of courses, student can go to bookshops as well as Tower Records and Speedy video stores to buy the DVD’s and then view them at their own convenience any time anywhere throughout the semester. If they have any inquiries, they can email the academic coordinator of the course, use Yahoo Messenger and other chatting programmes, or even use video conferencing for individual consultation. Students need only come to campus to take their exams. If this is done, not only will universities make money from the sales of these 'academic' DVDs, they will also reduce drastically their operation cost. Students would be happy having been given the freedom to study at their own pace and not troubled by the need to rush from class to class every day. Professors and lecturers can thus devote more time in research and academic activities other than teaching. Surely, this is a win-win situation, or is it?
Coming back to AUKU, if the reason to continue to have it is to prevent students from getting involved in partisan politics, I can agree with that to a certain extent. As my university’s former president once said, "there are no principles in partisan politics." But then, if that is the case, let us be fair and not selective. If students can be charged for misconduct because of their involvement in campaigning for opposition parties, students who act as 'volunteers' in UMNO gatherings should also be charged for the same crime. If the PAS youth movement is not allowed to infiltrate into campuses, Puteri and Putera UMNO should also be barred from recruiting members from among university students. If professors and lecturers are not allowed to become members of PAS, DAP and PKR, they also should not be allowed to become members of UMNO, MCA and MIC.
My personal view, and in respond to the DPM’s statement quoted in the first paragraph, let us abolish AUKU. Give freedom to students and academicians to explore their own sense of idealism without fear of punishment. Of course, if anyone transgresses; immersing oneself in politics while neglecting one’s principle duties as a teacher or a student, the person must be punished. But let’s not punish people for questioning the status quo and exploring differing political ideologies.
I am quite certain if the government decides to abolish AUKU, it will not result in an explosion of public support for opposition parties. When given the freedom to explore and reflect, people will eventually realise that while the current government is not always right, the opposition parties are not immune from mistakes and weaknesses either. The main thing is, students should be allowed to question and encouraged to develop a healthy sense of scepticism about everything they learn.
Three decades of AUKU has produced a culture of passive submission prevalent among university students and academicians. Should we then be surprised that "our children are just not curious enough"?
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