A Brief Introduction

Youth-led activism had been active in Malaysia as early as the pre-Merdeka period in the 1930s as an avenue to resist colonialism. In the present day, student-led movements are still active as a medium of change.

Students displaying banners depicting their advocacy messages in the Student Manifesto during the 1969 General Elections
Photo: Dr Khong Kim Hoong

University students in Malaysia for a long time have been depicted as mostly apathetic in terms of political activism relative to other countries in the Southeast Asean region such as Indonesia and Thailand, where exuberant student movements have gained international attention. This assumption, however, is far from the truth. Students from local universities have launched numerous rallies, dialogues and protests in recent years to champion free and fair education, social justice, civil liberties and good governance among other issues. Some student organisations have even challenged the state through judicial means in the name of student rights and freedom of expression.

The history of student activism in Malaysia, furthermore, is far more complex and illustrious. Similar to other countries, student activism has undergone periodic surges and were responsive to the country’s political and institutional contexts. On the road to independence, student activism was highly inspired by anti-colonial sentiment, mainly driven by both the nationalist and leftist ideologies. During the years after Independence, the question of rural poverty and national identity became contentious issues among various student groups. The nationwide rally tour organised by students from Universiti Malaya prior to the 1969 General Election serves as a famous example of students’ active participation in national developments. International events, such as the Vietnam War, Israel – Palestinian conflict and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, too, often inspired student demonstrations.

The watershed moment came in 1971 with the introduction of the Universities and University Colleges Act (colloquially known as AUKU) which curtailed students’ freedom and virtually removed local university autonomy. Student-led movements became dormant and activism on campus took less audacious forms such as religious movements. It was not until the advent of Reformasi in the late 1990s that saw a resurgence in political participation by students, this time focusing on issues of governance and civil liberties. The post-Reformasi years witnessed a steady occurrence of student demonstrations.

A landmark ruling was made in 2011 when the Court of Appeal declared Section 15(5)(a) of AUKU to be unconstitutional, which led to the act’s amendment the next year allowing students to participate in political activities outside of campus. Several reforms were gradually achieved throughout the decade. The latest amendment in 2018 allowed students to participate in political activities within campus. It remains to be seen whether more tangible reforms will be introduced.

This research project was commissioned with the hopes that key reforms will continue to be introduced for the betterment of higher education and student’s civil liberties in Malaysia. The study entails understanding the perspective and vision of current and past student activists through surveys, interviews and focus group discussions. Ultimately, the objective of this research aims to guide policy recommendations that would revive university autonomy as well as empower students in various forms of activism.

Read more about our research analysis and policy recommendations here.

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