Two Australian universities with branch campuses in Malaysia have been blasted for curtailing their students’ freedom of expression by threatening them with disciplinary action if they are found to have taken part in a pro-democracy rally over the weekend.
Last week, Monash University Malaysia and Curtin University Sarawak issued warnings to students prior to the rally, which was held on Nov 19 (Saturday).
Monash University Malaysia’s registrar, Susheela Nair, circulated an advisory saying: “You are advised not to participate in any illegal gathering/related activity which contravenes Malaysian laws.
“Any student found to be participating in such gathering/activity or who is arrested by the authorities for doing so may be subjected to disciplinary proceedings.”
— UniversityWorldNews (@uniworldnews) November 21, 2016
Curtin students have also reported receiving similar warnings by email, signed by Deputy Pro Vice-chancellor Beena Giridharan, which said “appropriate action” would be taken against students involved in activities “defamatory to the university”.
The rally, organized by Bersih, a coalition of non-governmental organisations calling for electoral reform, has become an annual show of public dissatisfaction with the ruling government.
In previous years, local universities have issued warnings against students who wished to participate in the rally, but in this instance, it is believed to be the first time that branch campuses of overseas institutions have found it necessary to do the same, reported University World News.
Encourage student activism, Hakam tells varsities after warning against rallies https://t.co/1ts2b5gw3E
— Malay Mail Online (@themmailonline) November 17, 2016
However, the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) released a statement lambasting the universities, saying that “the labelling of public rallies as an ‘illegal’ assembly must stop”, as the Peaceful Assembly Act protects the right of all Malaysian citizens to assemble peacefully.
“The issuance of the notices by the universities may be perceived as an abuse of powers by the university authorities to stifle freedom of expression and to curtail student activism and participation in what is clearly a legitimate democratic process.”
“The university is a place where students should be encouraged to give voice to their thoughts on national issues and embolden to act on the same. The voice of Malaysian youths should be given due public space without any threats from university authorities,” it said.
— malaysiakini.com (@malaysiakini) November 17, 2016
Under the Peaceful Assembly Act, police permits are not required in order to hold a mass demonstration, but organisers must notify the authorities in advance and obtain permission from venue owners.
In response to the criticism, Monash issued another statement saying that the advisory had only been meant “to remind students that taking part in unlawful assembly is contrary to the laws of Malaysia, and students need to be aware of the consequences of undertaking unlawful activities”.
“Students who do participate in such activities may be subjected to criminal charges by the Malaysian authorities, and as such students need to consider carefully their participation in such events,” it added.
— New Straits Times (@NST_Online) November 21, 2016
According to the Higher Education Ministry, universities and higher education institutions have the autonomy to take action against students who participated in the Bersih 5 rally, without needing to refer to the ministry.
“It is the universities’ prerogative. We have given them the green light to take necessary action against students who break the rules.
“They have the right to determine the appropriate actions to be taken against those who joined the illegal rallies,” he said, as quoted by the New Straits Times.
Image via the Associated Press