It was the action of University of Malaya’s (UM) vice-chancellor (VC) that led to Wong Yan Ke’s solo protest during his convocation ceremony, several activists have suggested amid backlash against the engineering graduate.
Zaharom Nain from Gerak, a group representing academics and activists in the education sector, said a protest like Wong’s was inevitable after Datuk Abdul Rahim Hashim’s decision to involve the university in the Malay Dignity Congress.
“It was going to happen, precipitated by the vice-chancellor dragging the university into a controversial and non-academic ‘congress’ with divisive and exclusive demands based on emotions and rhetoric rather than rigorous and intellectual evaluation.
“And him, allegedly making incendiary statements meant to offend fellow Malaysians,” said the University of Nottingham Malaysia professor, referring to Abdul Rahim.
“So, when you consider the background, you must see the original role played by the vice-chancellor, bringing a multi-ethnic public university into a congress that, let’s face it, was more about chest-beating than brain-testing,” he added.
Meanwhile, activist Fadiah Nadwi Fikri said once someone in a position of power within a university starts to advocate racism, it is imperative for the students to stand up and demand they be held accountable.
“What Wong did was in line with his duty to defend academic freedom, in this case, to challenge racism,” she told Malay Mail.
“Instead of taking action against the VC for actively advocating racism – racism is not an opinion that should be protected by free speech principles – UM is now punishing a student who stands up against it.
“UM should hang its head in shame for proudly assaulting the spirit of academic freedom,” FADIAH added.
UM has since lodged a police report against Wong, and the police said he is being investigated for allegedly violating the institution’s convocation protocol and disrupted the flow of the ceremony on Monday.
In response, Zaharom said UM’s move was unnecessary, and labelled it as “a pathetic display of power” for an institution that is supposedly a premier university.
“Show some maturity, please. If you say Yan Ke was being disruptive and childish, isn’t bringing the whole apparatus of the state not only using a sledgehammer to slam an ant but, also, being childish and a bully?” he asked.
Gerak has also issued a separate statement, saying the attacks against Wong have deliberately sidestepped and hidden “at least two main reasons” behind the whole episode.
“First, the organising of the Congress by UM and three other public universities funded by public money, three of which having a multi-ethnic student and teaching population.
“Second, the role played by UM and its VC in the Congress and whether this has brought the university into disrepute,” it said.
Meanwhile, human rights advocacy group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) in a statement has even called for the outright resignation of Abdul Rahim from his post as vice-chancellor.
“If the vice-chancellor is not able to take criticism from students nor is he willing to provide the safe space for student activists to engage in such discourse, perhaps it is high time for him to resign from his position and allow others to lead and develop University of Malaya as an academic institution that promotes critical discourse among its students,” it said.
The group then said such actions being taken by the management of UM only showed their lack of progression despite changes in policies and accused them of punishing and labelling students’ civil disobedience as deplorable acts even before seeking explanations.
“UM and all universities are supposed to be a safe space where students and youth are given a safe space to learn, debate and develop their ideas.
“As part of this process, any critique against policies through protests or civil disobedience is to be expected and welcomed so long it does not promote violence against others,” Suaram said.
Wong’s protest was among others against Abdul Rahim’s speech during the recent Malay Dignity Congress, in which the latter warned the Malays were losing political dominance in the country and that the non-Malays must adhere to the nation’s social contract.
The activist has since said his protest was the last resort, after the VC ignored students over issues involving increased tuition fees, student buses, campus WiFi, and others.
Police are currently investigating Wong under Section 504 of the Penal Code for allegedly intentionally insulting or provoking a person or persons, with the intent or knowledge that doing so will break the public peace.
Wong’s protest has since drawn mixed reactions online, with some condemning him for tarnishing a solemn occasion, while others praised his courage in taking a stance.
Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman has publicly disavowed the protest but also disagreed with calls such as those from the Malaysian Youth Council who urged for Wong’s degree to be withheld until the latter apologises.
This was followed by the barring of another graduate Edan Kon Hua En from participating in his convocation the next day after auxiliary police found a folded placard in his possession, leading to suspicion that Kon was planning to use it as a similar protest in support of Wong. – MMO