"Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus" (We will enjoy as long as we are young) was the battle cry of the group of students from the universities in Bologna and Oxford in the 12th and 13th century which managed to break the conservative thinking which plagued Europe in those times. Students have been known to be the agents of reform in society. The students' movement worldwide reached its peak in the 60's with names such as Abbie Hoffman and Daniel Cohn-Bendit a.k.a. "Danny the Red" turning up in newspapers around the globe.
The students in Malaysia were not to be left out-the late 60's and the following early years of the 70's saw the students actively championing the people's rights. Universiti Malaya was where the students' movement began in Malaysia, as it was the premier tertiary institution in the country then. Among the most vocal organisations were the Universiti Malaya Students Union (UMSU), Persatuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya (PBMUM) and the Socialist Club. There were portrayals of involvement in national issues before 1969, such as the demonstration against the cruelty inflicted by the Thai government on the people of Pattani during a visit by the Prime Minister of Thailand, and some rallies during the 1964 elections.
But it was only after the infamous deadly riots of 1969 did the students managed appeared to take a more radical stand. Curiously enough, Dr. Mahathir became a regular speaker at the time the student movement was growing stronger. Hassan Karim, former student activist and presently leader of Parti Rakyat Malaysia, writes in Malaysiakini.com, "As many of the former opposition parties were now on the side of the government, the ranks of the opposition in Malaysia dwindled. The various student organisations filled this vacuum that had been created by the decline of the parliamentary opposition."
True enough, the major opposition parties during the 1969 elections such as PAS, Gerakan and the Peoples' Progressive Party were now part of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Thus, it was the students' movement that carried the voice of the people if they were dissatisfied with the government. The government's first assault towards the students came through the University and University Colleges Act (U.U.C.A.) 1971. However this only led to further radicalism of the students' movement, with the Tasik Utara and later Baling incident. At this time, the other universities and institutions had their own organisations, such as Persatuan Pelajar ITM (PPITM) and Persatuan Mahasiswa UKM (PMUKM) as well as students' unions from USM and Politeknik Ungku Umar.
In the Tasik Utara incident in Johor, the students protested against the government's breach in promise towards the squatters in Kampung Barisan Nasional (of all names!). The Baling incident, now regarded as being the climax of the students' movement, occurred when rubber tappers from the town protested over the government's lack of action in responding to increase in price of necessities and decrease in price of rubber. In Two Faces : Detention Without Trial, Syed Hussin Ali wrote, "Despite this (warning from the PM), the students stood by their ideals and their actions. They regarded that it was their right and responsibility to fight for the farmers and tell the truth regarding to the various omissions of the rulers. "
The two incidents highlighted the name of Anwar Ibrahim, Hishamuddin Rais, Hassan Karim and Ibrahim Ali, just to name a few. This time, the government did not leave room for resurrection of the students' movement. Those involved in the Baling demonstration such as Anwar Ibrahim, Kamarulzaman Yaacob, Syed Hussin Ali, Ibrahim Ali, Kamal Selamat and Adi Satria were detained under the Internal Security Act and the powers-that-be amended UUCA (1971). With these, all students' organisations ceased to exist and students' representative councils were set up to replace them. The councils were mere shadows to their predecessors and had little impact. That marked the end of an era.
Nevertheless, youth organisations such as Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) and Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia, (PKPIM) which were made up of many of the former student leaders were relatively active after 1975 amendment to UUCA (1971). Following PAS being expelled from the ruling coalition, ABIM portrayed itself as if it was the party's youth wing. In the 1978 elections, ABIM openly campaigned for the Islamic party. This however changed after Anwar Ibrahim's entry into UMNO in 1982. PAS also saw a change in its leadership, which now was held by the religious educated faction rather than the nationalists.
The early 80's saw PAS starting to approach itself with the various students' associations in the universities. The picture was very different than during the age of Anwar Ibrahim and Hishamuddin Rais. The student organisations, arguably as a result of UUCA were not as vocal or as daring. They concentrated in usrahs, forums and once in a while demonstrations, but in a much smaller scale, normally on campus issues rather than tackling the big picture itself. Several students such as Ahmad Lutfi Othman (later editor of Harakah and Tamadun) were expelled. But the number was small, limited to the few daring ones. As you may notice, most of the student movements especially post-UUCA saw it being spearheaded by Malay organisations. True enough, organisations from other ethnic groups were less active, but that did not mean they were totally inactive. However it cannot be denied the students movement epecially during the 80's were divided along racial lines.
Since the early 90's, the racial tensions of the past decade were slowly gone, replaced by more openness among the Chinese students. This was at a time when BN, following its big defeat in 1990, liberalised their policy towards Chinese education and culture. There was also influence from students educated in Taiwan and Australia, which led to the change in the outlook of the Chinese students.
However, since the mid-90's, with the sacking of Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim being the climax, the students movement had some sort of revival, albeit differently than the activism of the 70's and 60's. The students portrayed themselves as being more concerned with national issues than before, and several demonstrations took place. Quite a number of students were tried, suspended and expelled. Still, Fong Po Kuan, the youngest Member of Parliament at 26, representing DAP complained, "In campus, politics is strictly prohibited. My four years in UIA was filled with studying most of the time." Shabrimi Sidek, Secretary General of PKPIM on the other hand said, "The political crisis had woken up the students."
The establishment and the government are becoming increasingly unpopular in campus. In 1999 campus elections for example, not one campus fell to the pro-UMNO groups. In fact the UMNO cronies had ceased to control the campuses for quite some time. There were demonstrations (most in the vicinity of the UM campus) on the corpratisation of UM, the entry of the Israel cricket team and various other issues. When asked why the students tend to be pro-Opposition, Chairperson for the Women's Wing of Gamis (Gabungan Mahasiswa Islam Semenanjung), Idawati Zakaria reiterated, "Maybe the conclusion arises from the issues which we fight for is similar to that of the Opposition. We want UUCA, ISA and various other draconian acts to be repealed, just like the Opposition. We are against corruption, misuse of power and favouritism, and the Opposition too is opposing those things."
When Reformasi erupted in 1998, the students embraced it eagerly, even if not in such an open manner. The street demonstrations although being organised by political parties and NGO's, were mostly made of university students. This led to the political elite squirming in their seats and finally admitting that they no longer had the support in campuses across the country. They came down with UUCA, Educational Institutions Act (Discipline) 1976 and a host of other regulations aimed at curbing the students' movement. One of the martyrs were Ahmad Zaki Yamani Zainon, former Secretary General of PKPIM who was first fined and sacked from his posts, then suspended for a year and fined before being expelled from UITM. He later sued the Minister of Education and UITM for his unlawful expulsion.
While it is true, that the UUCA and related acts had stifled the students movement, but we have seen that if the students themselves want it, they can get around UUCA and thus once again portray themselves as being the voice of the people. With their youth and vigour, their idealism can make up for the mind-your-own business attitude that seems to plague the older generation.