By Balqis Azhar
On the 15th of April, I was lucky enough to attend a dialogue between participants of the Global Leadership Programme 2 (LEAD 2) and Malaysian students in the UK. As an executive in the United Kingdom and Eire Council for Malaysian Students (UKEC), I felt the responsibility to engage with them and to keep myself in touch with the current on-goings in Malaysia.
Amongst the panel of speakers are Prof Dato’ Sri Zaleha Kamaruddin (IIUM Rector), Tan Sri Aziz Rahman (Co-Chair for LEAD 2) and Dr. Zainal Sanusi (the Director of Education Malaysia).
Student Activism in the UK
When I first came to the UK last September, I was not too aware of the spirit of student activism there and the dynamics of various student movements by Malaysian students in the UK. As a patriotic person who intends to help usher in change to the nation, I signed up for UKEC, an organisation that I knew before coming to London to pursue my undergraduate studies. After my interview during their selection process, I was accepted and called to the office sometime around October. The journey began then and I was exposed to a vast number of Malaysian societies and organisations – each with different aims, purposes, niche targets and objectives. As for UKEC, it stands strong as an umbrella body for Malaysian students in the UK, connecting all these Malaysian societies and organisations under one roof.
Organising a strategic meeting for various Malaysian societies and organisations was our first task. The strategic meeting aimed to discuss the direction of student activism in the UK– connecting the missing dots – and in the end, to acknowledge its various problems and their probable solutions.
At that time, I realised how enthusiastic, keen and patriotic these students were in their efforts to make Malaysia a better nation. The spirit of student activism is overwhelming and ever-growing, a positive indicator for Malaysia in their efforts to find the next generation of leaders.
It seems to me that the presence of Malaysian societies throughout the globe in almost every country where Malaysian students are concentrated in – is proof that the diaspora of students worldwide have a strong sense of belonging to our country. Despite living thousands of kilometres away from our motherland, there is one similarity that unites us all as we choose to join a Malaysian student organisation – yes, we want to be surrounded by people who share the same background, identity, language and perhaps food as well!
What is student activism?
Student activism in the UK, in particular, has always fought for a greater cause i.e. against rising fees, social changes, the Palestinian cause, governmental policies and many others. Students believe, ideally, that the exercise of their voice through various platforms such as demonstrations and protests could contribute to the cause that they are fighting for. Students’ Unions are very influential and have in the past demonstrated their ability to affect the chances of a particular movement in favour of students when they disagree on various policies such as those on education. Under the National Union of Students (NUS), every student, locally and internationally, will be protected from detainment for the cause that they are fighting for. The solidarity and spirit of resistance is beyond comparable as they march together for the same cause along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other students. To be directly involved in the student union means that you would have the chance to engage in helping to change the world, not merely through one’s efforts as a keyboard warrior on Facebook. The latest movement involving students in SOAS and Cambridge vehemently fighting to decolonise their syllabus – making it less euro-centric, white men centric, and to demolish the ‘Orientalism’ that appears in their syllabus- is a key example.
But is student activism enough?
The Three Elements
Back to the meeting that I had yesterday, Prof, Dato’ Sri Zaleha said that there are three elements that a student should have. One, idealism. Second, intellectualism. Third, activism. These are the three elements that every student at the tertiary level should have. If one element is lost, the spirit will be imbalanced. Hence, the three elements should be present in a student when he/she gets involved with societies or any other organisations with the intention to contribute towards the nation.
It is pertinent to highlight each element that Prof Dato’ Sri Zaleha has outlined. The spirit of idealism, per se, often relates to ‘youths’ who tend to become the jetsetter for a movement. They are the front lines in every demonstration and protest, often linked with the term ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘rebel’. From my own observation, it is perhaps not that we are rebellious or anti-establishment to the current system, but rather that we notice the flaws in the system and want to see change by challenging it. We believe that a change will eventually come as we protest on the street. We believe that our voices will echo up to the parliaments and we hoped that our MPs are backing us up. But that’s not always the case. Looking from a realistic point of view, a change will not come in a day or two. Neither will our MPs take our voices very seriously on every occassion.
The intellectualism element, nonetheless, is a good point to discuss. University, a place where students in tertiary level come to learn and are expected discuss in a rigorous level. Relating it back to the topic, such battles on the road will be pointless when it is merely a demonstration without any intellectual movement. Take example of the protests against rising fees in the UK – we can all agree that the UK has been profiting off students ever since Margaret Thatcher’s administration. The UK, being a capitalistic country, portrays their universities as neoliberal, a place where competition takes place among students. For example, 70% of law students in particular will perhaps not be getting a training contract due to scarce placements offered in the market. Despite this, they continue to raise their fees, and make us believe that education is a financial investment, causing a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude to take place. Post-modernism makes humans selfish, greedy, and competition in a neoliberal system will only oppress those who are less-abled and underprivileged. Therefore, the protest against rising fees should come with a good comprehension about how the system works and resort to fight expressly and implicitly in order to bring about change.
No, I am not undermining their spirit. But with intellectualism, I hope that a snowball of change will come to affect us as we speak.
The last point – activism – is actually the first point that I have highlighted. Without the spirit of activism, students will be seen as apathy to making changes. They will be seen as self-centred and only caring for themselves. Such a lack of concern produces bookworms that care only for their future careers prospect and themselves. That is a mundane life we do not want to welcome in a university where societies are active and there will always be something to offer as you explore university life.
To conclude, I personally feel that we need to emphasise the three elements as per suggested and instilling it in every organisations and union represented by Malaysian students in the UK. Our spirit of activism and altruism through many volunteering programmes has shown a progressive attitude forming among Malaysian students in the UK. However, it must be directed and guided with scrutiny in an effort to develop a better and stronger student union.