Debunking the Myth of Student Activism

Following the implementation of AUKU, student activism turned into a social taboo. Here we debunk some common misconception regarding student movements.

Myth #1: Student activists are rebellious youths who do not believe in order and rules

Front-page news coverage by Berita Harian in 1974.
Photo: Pusat Sejarah Rakyat

While there were several instances of conflict against the authorities, student activism can be conducted in an orderly manner. For example, in the run run-up to the 1969 General Election, Universiti Malaya Students Union (UMSU) participated actively in the electoral process through legal means. Students went on a nationwide rally giving speeches – after securing police permits – in significant towns and distributing the Students’ Manifesto. The manifesto underlined personal liberty and release of political prisoners, freedom of expression, equitable development, equal access to educational opportunities, and student empowerment, amongst other points (Weiss 2011, 145-6).

Student activism should not be viewed solely as a challenge to institutional authority. In its simplest definition, student activism refers to an action that is done to champion a cause or pursue justice. The actions may include door-to-door canvassing, podcasts, public meetings, rallies, and fasting.

Myth #2: Student activism are dominated by males

Newspaper clipping on a report of the former press secretary of the National Union of Malaysian students, 
Lim Chooi Peng
Photo: The Straits Times / Dr Khong Kim Hoong’s archive

Despite the higher representation of male student activists, female student activists’ role cannot be disregarded. Since Independence, female students have featured significantly in certain episodes of local student activism throughout the country’s journey.

In several instances, women formed a larger proportion of student movements. For example, during the 1963 Malaysia-Indonesia conflict (Konfrontasi), students – mostly female – rallied at Universiti Malaya to condemn Indonesia and pledge loyalty to the nation (Weiss, 2011, 113).

Another incident was the Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM) student demonstrations in 1976, which led to the ITM campus’s closure for months. Over 100 students – mostly female – were accused of sympathizing with Communism and expelled.i

Juliet Chin, former president of the University of Singapore Student Union (USSU), famously got into trouble with the Malaysian and Singaporean authorities after actively participating in the 1974 Tasik Utara landless and poor urban protest in Johor. She was expelled from the University of Singapore and was detained under the Internal Security Act. She eventually forfeited her Malaysian citizenship and sought political asylum in France.ii

Anis Syafiqah from Universiti Malaya organized the #TangkapMalaysianOfficial1 (MO1) rally in 2016 after several governments exposed the 1MDB scandal. She was eventually suspended for six months and fined RM400 by the university.iii

Myth #3: Student activism is only concerned about campus politics and student welfare

UM students listening to Sharifah Mahani Syed Hamzah talking about the oppression of the peasants in Teluk Gong
Photo: Pusat Sejarah Rakyat

From past to present, student activism has gone beyond campus and varsity concerns. For instance, in the 60s-70s, student activism was centered upon social issues such as rural poor communities and international issues such as the Vietnam war. Student solidarity with rural poor communities has been notably documented in the 1967 Teluk Gong and 1974 Tasik Utara and Baling demonstrations. Besides protests, various student organizations have launched rural outreach programs to understand poor rural conditions (Weiss 2011).

The same period witnessed various student protests over issues happening abroad. Students protested the American invasion of Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, British arms sale to South Africa, and French nuclear testing in the Pacific, among other issues (Weiss 2011).

The post-Reformasi period reoriented student activism towards civil liberty and social justice causes. Student groups from cross-communal alliances criticize injustices such as the Internal Security Act, the Universities and University Colleges Act, and the National Higher Education Fund’s 4% interest charges (PTPTN).

Myth #4: Student activism doesn’t achieve anything

Student activism has been proven to be effective in promoting change on numerous occasions.

In 1967, Universiti Malaya students protested the “Suitability Certificate” requirement, which encroached on their autonomy. The protest succeeded, and the government announced a two-year trial suspension of the certificate (Weiss 2011, 118).

In September 1969, Tunku Abdul Rahman eventually resigned as Prime Minister following persistent pressure by various quarters, including university students after the 1969 General Election (Weiss 2011, 149). Anti-Tunku protests were organized on campus throughout the months leading to the resignation.

In 1973, Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak was forced to withdraw the head of the civil service Abdullah Ayub as the new vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), after protests from students and other groups (Weiss 2011, 132).

The most iconic event was perhaps the “UKM 4” episode. As university students were not allowed to be involved in politics under the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU), 4 UKM students were arrested during the Hulu Selangor by-election in 2010 after police found campaign materials such as political posters in their car. They challenged Section 15(5)(a) of AUKU in court and eventually succeeded in getting it declared unconstitutional by the High Court. This landmark case led to the 2012 AUKU amendments, which allowed students to participate in politics outside of campus.

Myth #5: The government and student activists will always be enemies and will never work together

Student activists are not always in opposition to the establishment. There were instances where both parties work together on specific issues.

During the 1963 Malaysia-Indonesia conflict (Konfrontasi), Universiti Malaya Students Union (UMSU) appealed for military training and army units on campus. They rallied on campus to condemn Indonesia and pledge their lives to defend Malaysia. The government agreed to form a two-company Territorial Army on campus.

It is important to note that student activism is not homogenous. There may be a difference in opinion regarding specific issues or national policies. PBMUM, for example, disagreed with UMSU and supported government policies such as the Suitability Certificate requirement, the 1967 National Language Act, and the separation of Singapore.

Perhaps the most memorable episode was in 1974 when UMSU president Kamarazman Yaacob led the Majlis Tertinggi Sementara (Temporary Executive Council) to take over the UM campus in protest of student arrests made during the Tasik Utara demonstration. In retaliation, PBMUM and other Malay student organizations formed the pro-government Majlis Tindakan Nasional (Nationalist Action Council) to wrest control UM campus from MTS physically.

Myth #6: The younger generation is lazy, entitled and selfish unlike their forefathers who worked hard in bringing the world to where it is now

Screenshot of the Parlimen Digital programme organised by Malaysian youths
Photo: Parlimen Digital Facebook

The introduction of AUKU and decades of restriction on political participation have dampened activism’s energy amongst university students. The high degree of discipline and lack of autonomy imposed a culture of passiveness amongst students.

The occurrence of Reformasi, however, unleashed a new wave of energy amongst student activists. Student organizations of various ethnicity and identity rallied together in championing civil liberties and institutional reforms.

While the culture of protests nowadays is relatively lower than in the 1960s-70s, the advent of digital activism has illustrated how the younger generation can contribute productively to the nation’s development. One example is the Parlimen Digital program, which allows youths to participate in a mock parliamentary session. Despite lacking any legislative effect, Parlimen Digital empowers youths to participate and express their opinions on pertinent issues. It also encourages more young Malaysians to have greater social and civic awareness.


  1. Interview with Raja Ahmad Aminullah, 19 Oktober 2020.
  2. Malaysia Muda. (2018, December 19). “The poor will always be among us.” An Interview with Juliet Chin by Fadiah Nadwa Fikri. Retrieved from
  3. Interview with Anis Syafiqah, 24 October 2020
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