Education Minister proposes more political freedoms on campuses
(KUALA LUMPUR, December 6, 2018) – The Government of Malaysia should ensure the proposed amendments to higher educational laws remove all restrictions that violate the fundamental rights of university students, Fortify Rights said today – welcoming the Education Minister’s announcement as part of the Pakatan Harapan government’s university reform process.
“Amendments to laws that have long shackled and muffled students are very much welcomed,” said Eric Paulsen, Legal Director at Fortify Rights. “However, the proposed amendments fall short of addressing all the ways in which the laws and regulations governing universities still violate the fundamental rights of students.”
On December 4, Education Minister Dr. Maszlee Malik tabled three amendment bills allowing university students to participate in political-party activities on university campuses, which would ensure students’ right to freedom of speech and association. The proposed bills seek to amend Section 15(2)(c) of the University and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU), Section 47(2)(c) of the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996, and Section 10(2)(c) of the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976, all of which infringed on university students’ rights. The bills also seek to dismiss any disciplinary action taken against students due to their participation in such “political” activities.
The current laws as stated above prohibit university students from involvement in political-party activities on campuses. Under Section 15(7) of AUKU, any student who breaches the prohibition is liable to face disciplinary actions. Section 16C of AUKU confers the authority to the University Board to determine disciplinary actions against students, with the most severe punishment resulting in expulsion from the university.
Certain provisions that still violate university students’ rights were absent from the proposed amendment bills, Fortify Rights said.
For instance, Section 15(2)(b) of AUKU prohibits university students from becoming “a member of any society, organization, body or group of persons, not being a political party, which the Board determines to be unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University.” University authorities have previously used the remaining broadly worded and vague provisions to discipline students who participated in peaceful rallies such as Bersih 5 and “Tangkap MO1” that the university authorities deemed “unsuitable.”
On June 28, 2018, Fortify Rights published a 63-page report, “No Politics on Campus,” documenting how Malaysian authorities and public universities worked in concert for nearly five decades to restrict the fundamental rights of university students using AUKU and related rules, such as the provisions in the Disciplinary of Students Rules 1999. The report highlights specific cases from September 2016 to June 2017, showing how universities warned, fined, or suspended students for their involvement in political rallies, raising placards at university events, and organizing press conferences to discuss issues of concern.
In some cases, the former Government of Malaysia under the Barisan Nasional administration called upon universities to take disciplinary action against specific students, and the universities complied. In at least two cases documented in the Fortify Rights report, university officials cracked down on students who expressed their views and concerns about the controversial 1 Malaysia Development Berhad or 1MDB scandal, which implicates members of the former government in allegedly embezzling several billion dollars from a state-owned fund.
AUKU and its related regulations as well as universities’ disciplinary actions against students for engaging in political activism on and off-campus violate the rights to freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and association. These fundamental rights are protected under Article 10(1) of the Malaysian Federal Constitution. Under international human rights law, the same rights are protected under articles 19 and 20(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Fortify Rights joins student activists in Malaysia in recommending the Government of Malaysia to repeal all remaining restrictions that violate the fundamental rights of university students. University authorities should also immediately and unconditionally drop all proceedings against university students facing disciplinary action for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.
“We support the Malaysian government in honoring their manifesto promises to abolish these harmful restrictions against university students but the reforms must be comprehensive,” said Eric Paulsen. “Half-hearted measures that still allow arbitrary disciplinary action against students are unacceptable and won’t satisfy the government’s commitment to respect and protect the rights of university students.”