Democracy and Student Movement in Malaysia

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By: Bhima Yudhistira Adhinegara

Observing the political changes occurring in Malaysia is no less interesting than discussing the democratic transitions in the Middle East.

Malaysia in recent years has not been so very different from oppressive regimes in the Middle East, where the scrutiny of pro-democracy movements, particularly the student movement, is intensifying.

There were some state regulations introduced to control pro-democracy movements and curtail freedom of expression, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA). As a consequence of ISA enforcement, demonstrations were prohibited and opposition activists arrested for fear they would endanger the security of the country.

Within the scope of universities, the ISA applied a similar form of oppression that Indonesian students had endured under the campus normalization policy called the NKK/BKK (Normalisasi Kehidupan Kampus / Badan Koordinasi Kemahasiswaan) during the Soeharto regime, which specifically banned political activities on campuses.

Under the restriction, Malaysian students were obliged to report to the security authorities when planning to hold political discussions. Various government regulations that were designed to restrict the freedom of speech, however, raised students’ awareness of politics in Malaysia and drove them to become actors of social change in the country.

Restrictions of Malaysian students’ political activities turned out to be the seed of a pro-democracy movement that has spread across the country. It has not only been the establishment of student alliances in Malaysia but also the distribution of “black sarcastic” pamphlets targeting the government, which show that the process of transition toward democracy in Malaysia is drawing near.

The recent acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy trumped up by his political opponents and the repeal of the controversial ISA regulation against opposition movements have also managed to convince the public that the road to democracy is opening in Malaysia.

There are two important agendas in the democratic transition process in Malaysia.

The first is related to election regulation changes that are cleaner and do not side with the incumbent. The second comprises constitutional reforms regarding the revision of the freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Malaysia.

The student movement in Malaysia cannot be separated from the influence of the student movement in Indonesia, which led to the ending of two regimes: once in 1965 and again in 1998. The composition of students in Malaysia is considered an appropriate representation of the middle class, which is politically aware.

Students in Malaysia who are active in politics have built good networks with some of Malaysia’s influential parties.

Now the student movement in Malaysia has two options: cooperate with the major opposition party or choose to remain independent from any political interests in the midst of limitations.

The first option seems more plausible because the objective conditions for reform in Malaysia are very different from Indonesia during Soeharto regime.

Malaysia’s transition toward democracy has become an interesting topic to be observed but its future remains unclear.

Whether the political movement represented by students will become a trigger for large-scale reforms that change the constitutional democracy, or whether the movement fails because the changes do not receive support from the majority of Malaysian society who feel that political instability will worsen the country’s economic condition will be interesting to see.

Malaysian students need to learn from Indonesia to avoid a transition to democracy that involves violence and social unrest as happened in the Middle East.

Besides, the 13 years of reform in Indonesia offer important lessons to be learned because the changes that occurred after Reformasi in May 1998 were only apparent in the political field without directly triggering social changes, which are the noble idea of a democratic movement.

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Notice: This opinion article was displayed in an online newspaper The Jakarta Post in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday, 3 February 2012. It is also able to be reached at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 5 February 2012].

Bhima Yudhistira Adhinegara is a member of the ASEAN Student Organization Network and is a student on the international program at the Faculty of Economics and Business UGM (Gadjah Mada University) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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