The topic of student activism has been coming up recently for many months now, starting up from last June up to October before getting into the main agenda of many student organisations for the last few months. Furthermore, the post-GE14 #MalaysiaBaru vibes and the change of government, add to the domino effect on the ongoing conversation which will kickstart a new generation of Malaysian students, playing their own roles and opening up the possibilities of extending their roles in student activism.
It would only serve me the justice to finally write something on this matter as I have been wanting to write on this for a very long time and finally, only now the time has allowed me to do so. Also, after nearly two years in the scene, I hope this could add some fresh insights from my perspectives surrounding this matter.
To give this write-up a context, I would start by laying out my train of thoughts and how they might be affected by my experiences in the student activism landscape. Next, I will then proceed to dissect the arguments involving:
- Representation & legitimacy
- Implementation of UKEC initiatives
- Advocacy & student activism
I started my way into the student activism landscape by becoming a committee member of United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC) in October 2016, of which I became the Regional Chairperson of North West region. This position mandated me to work with the Presidents and Vice Presidents of Malaysian Societies in the region; which includes Malaysian societies in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster.
It was exciting at the beginning of the job but after some time, I realised that there were some obvious gaps in the aspirations of UKEC and its Supreme Councillors (the Presidents and Vice Presidents of Malaysian societies) and naturally, I encountered some setbacks in the process of synergising the efforts between these two bodies. The setbacks were obvious at times, where the goals of these bodies were often disconnected or even opposing each other. The overstretched of the Council’s manpower and resources might have also contributed to these setbacks and on top of that, the nature of the relationship and the busy period where both of us were occupied with our own events also led to the lack of collaboration among us.
We then changed our approach to facilitating more discussions between us to better understand each other aspirations. This was done through strategic meetings held in London, Manchester, Ireland and a cultural-focused group discussion in Malaysia during summer break last year to discuss on the cultural initiatives spearheaded by the Malaysian societies and how could we achieve marginal gains in organising them. The inputs we received from these meetings showed that clearly, there were problems, we admitted them and we strive to improve the way we operated ever since.
At the end of my term as the Regional Chairperson, with the help from the Council, I managed to organise three events in my region and they were a law career talk on their career path post-LLB whether to go for CLP or Bar training, a volunteering activity where we gave necessities to the homeless and an intellectual event where we discussed the future of Malaysian universities as their operating expenditures were cut, the trade-off between the reduction in overseas scholarship opportunities and making Malaysia as an education hub in southeast Asia and political freedom among our youth.
The Real Journey
Early April 2017, I decided to ran for the Shadow Deputy Chairperson position in the first ever Shadow Council Election in UKEC’s history. The shadow system is a transitional working committee that enables the committee members to gain experiences before actually succeeding the officeholders and also an opportunity to plan ahead the Council’s initiatives for the upcoming term and this was done during the summer break.
This period was where I managed to experience the full dynamics of the Council’s operations. During this period, I have been able to communicate directly with many of our stakeholders and importantly, the Supreme Councillors representing the Malaysian societies in the UK and Republic of Ireland which total up to 79 Malaysian societies.
Travelling back and forth from Manchester to London for nearly every weekend and I still remember missing the train to London for this one weekend. I immediately bought a new ticket and took the next train just to make it on time for the meeting. Other than travelling to London, I have also traveled to many places to participate in the events held by our Malaysian societies during the busy period, from February to March 2018.
In a nutshell, it felt that I have committed more to UKEC rather than my studies as it is undeniably the challenge that we faced in UKEC, to be juggling both studies and UKEC work. There is this saying among us that we do not find the work-life balance, instead we integrate UKEC in our life through having UKEChill sessions among the Council members and by having some outside-work-chit chats before or after our weekly late night meetings.
However, from this invaluable experiences from traveling to different Malaysian diasporas, I have been able to further enhance my understanding on the real situation on the ground from the feedback I have received from them throughout my period as the Deputy Chairperson of UKEC.
For example, the clashes of Malaysian societies’ events which may affect the attendance of the crowd for many of these events. To improve this situation, we created a new website which incorporated a the self-submission system where these societies could be able to submit their events themselves and to book the dates on the UKEC Calendar. The rational is that for the Malaysian societies to check the calendar first before finalising their venue booking but as clashes of events were inevitable at some point in time, event clashes did happen.
The event clashes happened mainly due to the logistical reasons, as there was only that one date available for them to book the venue, the cost of other venues were too expensive for them to opt for and the busy schedule of their own Malaysian societies to accommodate any other dates as many of these societies have multiple events happening in a month.
In addition, from the inputs we had from the strategic meetings, we noticed that there were discrepancies of best practices that were employed by these Malaysian societies. Some established Malaysian societies were operating at the optimal level while the newly established Malaysian societies were indeed in need of guidance and help from the experienced ones.
To help them on this, we published the Supreme Councillors’ guidelines which aim to act as a manual for Supreme Councillors to run their respective organisations. On top of giving a few examples on best practices or standard operating procedures (SOPs) that could be incorporated, the guidelines also include a clear description on the roles of Supreme Councillors in UKEC and how can they make the most out of it.
We also moved away from being mainly an event-based organisation to a more emphasised role in providing platforms for other Malaysian organisations to work with us and to engage with the Malaysian students as a whole. In the last edition of Projek Amanat Negara (PAN), an annually-held intellectual conference, we had breakout sessions which were hosted by many student-run organisations such as Kesatuan Penuntut Undang-Undang Malaysia di United Kingdom dan Eire (KPUM), The Kalsom Movement, Malaysian Bioscience Scholars – MBIOS and YME-UK: Young Malaysian Engineers-UK. This marked a paradigm shift in the way we operate as we paved the way for these organisations to contribute in community development which is one the main pillars of our brand of student activism.
Before moving on to the main argument of this write-up, I hope you can understand the context of my train of thoughts based on my experiences and how it arrives at the propositions that I will mention for the rest of this write-up.
Representation & Legitimacy
Personally, this is one of the matters that I think quite often as a politics students, a real-life application of political thoughts that I have learnt in lectures and through discussion in tutorials.
Representation plays a significant role in the legitimisation of a political system. Without any representation, a political system could never be legitimised and the system would not be able to stand on its own and collapse in the long run.
Francis Fukuyama in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that authoritarian regimes will never survive as it lacks the legitimacy it needs to withstand the demanding political pressure of the citizens to represent them. Hence, the invention and sustainability of democracy mark the end of ‘history’ due to the political nature of check and balance that was established in democracy.
At the national level, UKEC acts as an umbrella body for Malaysian student societies in the UK and Republic of Ireland. We neither enforce laws/rules nor we manage any of these Malaysian societies. The UKEC’s representation of Malaysian students come from the political representation in a representative democracy where the elected officeholders of UKEC Executive Council are elected by the elected Presidents and Vice Presidents of Malaysian societies. This is where the strength of UKEC lies – the relationship that we have with our Malaysian societies that differentiates us from the other organisations.
These Presidents and Vice Presidents made up the Supreme Council of UKEC while the Executive Council of UKEC made up of the elected persons that ran for the positions to execute the day-to-day operations of the Council on what was mandated to them. If you are keen to know more, you can visit our website to learn more about how UKEC was established and how the political structure evolved then.
At the local level, the Presidents and Vice Presidents are elected by their electorate who are the Malaysian students at their respective universities. This is where things usually get complicated, especially for the motion debates that are held during UKEC Annual General Meeting (AGM) and UKEC Ordinary General Meeting (OGM).
As the representation of the students starts from the local level to the national platform, where UKEC plays that role by providing a platform to debate on motions related to the students, the views of the students are represented by those who were elected to represent their views.
Unfortunately, many of the students that I have talked to personally argued against this part of the representative democracy where they felt that the elected leaders of their Malaysian societies were not representing their views in voting for a motion or even did not make an effort to come for the UKEC AGMs and OGMs.
For the former, we recognised this limitation and tried to encourage the Malaysian societies to put up a form to collect views and based on that views, these elected officeholders could then make an informed decision to represent their electorate’s views in voting for the motion.
With regards to the latter, we have always communicated and done our best to find the best date to accommodate everyone’s schedule and to the extent of providing reimbursements for their transportation cost, just to attend the meetings.
Representation works both ways – wanting to represent and wanting to be represented.
I wholeheartedly agree that there is always a room of improvement even though perfect representation could never be achieved but it should always be the goal that we strive for and this could be done by promoting a two-way interaction by those who want to represent and those who want to be represented.
Firstly, provide a proper channel for those who want to be represented for them to express their views not only during meetings that usually held twice a year. A form or an open communication between the elected representatives and the represented could be established as a way to communicate their views to their representatives.
Secondly, the represented should always be aware of their power and responsibility as an electorate, the power to elect their representatives, the power to make a difference and the responsibility to do the right thing. AGMs and OGMs are the best platforms to show this power by nudging the people who are running to the offices to be made aware of their issues and concerns with regards to their welfare and views generally. Sadly, some of the Malaysian students did not make the efforts to participate in these meetings and this could pose a serious problem in representing their views in the future.
Implementation of UKEC Initiatives
There are two mechanisms of which policies could be initiated and implemented by the UKEC Executive Council:
The first mechanism is through submission of motion and the acceptance of the motion during motion debate in UKEC AGMs and OGMS. The motion is passed if it receives a simple majority or in other words, more than 50% of the total votes. Once the motion is passed, the UKEC Executive Council is mandated to implement the motion.
For example, from the previous OGM, UKEC was mandated to publish a statement on the University and College Union (UCU) strike action which had affected many of our students here in the UK and Republic of Ireland as lecturers held a strike in protest of the unfair treatment by the Universities UK (UUK) on the dispute over university pensions. We had drafted a statement and it was on its way to being published but we are still waiting for important clarifications and updates from the parties that were affected and potential parties that will be addressed to in the statement.
The implementation of UKEC initiatives can also be done through mandated election manifestos that were voted by the Presidents and the Vice Presidents of the Malaysian societies during UKEC Elections. Even so we admitted that the mandated initiatives could be further improved and for this reason, we have requested feedback from the stakeholders that will be directly affected by the potential implementation of such policies.
For instance, the point-based reward system which was put forwarded prior to the election was discussed during a focus group that we had during the AGM and we have received mixed feedback regarding the mechanism of implementation and the concerns that the system would not be sustainable or not supported enough in the future. After the initiative was mandated as we were elected, we still continued to request feedback on this initiative and this type of consultation was done for many of our initiatives. Some of the initiatives were actively participated by the Supreme Councillors from the consultation period to the implementation of the initiative.
Perfect implementation is only attainable – if both sides really work together to make it work as it takes two to tango.
However, regrettably, some of the initiatives were half-dead a few months after implementation as they were not supported enough by the stakeholders. It is saddening to see these initiatives to go to waste after so many efforts been put to the planning and the implementation of the initiatives. Indeed, some were benefited from such initiatives but the potential added value to everyone could be higher if everyone could play their part in supporting and benefiting from them.
One of the reasons for this could be that there was a mismatched of supply and demand in what we were offering and what they were in need of. I admit that we could do better if we understand enough of the whole situation and the complex nature of the problems does not help us in achieving perfect information to solve them.
In contrast, as our term progresses, we are grateful that some of the Malaysian students gave constructive criticisms and positive feedback with regards to our initiatives and encouraged us to do even better for our other initiatives. It was uplifting to see and to know that there were some, if not many, that have benefited from the initiatives that we implemented during our fiscal year.
Advocacy & Student Activism
Disclaimer: The historical context may not be as accurate as it is interpreted from my limited observation and imperfect information.
In this section, I will first outline the way that UKEC advocated in the student activism landscape in the past, to the present situation and what the future of UKEC’s student activism journey would look like. I will also draw a parallel line with the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK and to look at the NUS’s model in shaping the path of this conversation on whether UKEC should stay as it is now or to adapt by the tides of time.
Historically, UKEC shied away from being ‘political’ as quoted by the late CEO of Cradle Fund, Mr Nazrin Hassan who was also one of the founding fathers of UKEC, that it will be hard to draw the lines of ‘partisan’ and ‘non-partisan’. Hence, during his times, UKEC have only advocated the bread and butter issues that directly affected the Malaysian students. Some of the issues would be on the demand to increase allowances allocated to the scholars and the number of scholarship opportunities offered to our students.
However, as time progressed and the Reformasi took place in Malaysia, UKEC changed its stance to be ‘political’ and started on advocating national issues back then. Notably, Mr Rafizi Ramli (the PKR politician) who was at that time the UKEC Chairperson, was closely associated with the late Adlan Benan Omar who was closely linked to DS Anwar Ibrahim, where he was also one of the founders of Pemuda Keadilan Nasional. Even Tun Dr Mahathir joked that he was ‘the best prime minister we never had‘ (before he supported Reformasi in solidarity with DS Anwar Ibrahim) as he died at a young age.
Those who came after, supported the late Adlan Benan Omar’s stance even after his departure from UKEC. One would argue that UKEC struggled during this period as it acted as a political pressure group and heavily relied on the support of the Malaysian societies affiliated to it. UKEC started to be marginalised into the wilderness where UKEC lost the money from the Board of Trustees due to the close affiliation of UKEC members to him. They also started CEKU which was aimed to act as an independent editorial arm of UKEC and as a platform for students to advocate on student activism.
As time passes, UKEC maintains its ‘political’ stance but reaffirms its ‘non-partisan’ alignment on taking sides where the line should be drawn. For the past few years, UKEC has been advocating on national issues. For example, the National Security Council (NSC) Bill in 2015. During our term, we have published several statements on national issues that reinforced the label that UKEC is ‘pro-opposition’ even though we collected views from the general public before making those statements. For instances, our statements on the Anti-Fake News (AFN) Bill 2018 and GE14 Postal Voting.
We understand that those in leadership positions should practice strong leadership by doing the right thing and that it is very difficult to please everyone at the same time. Aside from national issues, we have also advocated on Rohingya’s refugees in collaboration with Mercy Malaysia UK and by having fundraising at Malaysian societies’ events, we have managed to collect more than £1000 from this initiative.
However, we have always maintained our stance on being ‘non-partisan’ and advocated our brand of student activism which is to contribute towards nation building through:
- Community Development
- Tackling Brain Drain
- Developing Employability
- Strengthening Unity
- Providing Platforms for Non-Partisan Intellectual Discourse
Recently, several motions have been tabled during UKEC AGMs and OGMs for UKEC to act as a political pressure group through voicing out issues collectively in parallel to the NUS’s model rather than focusing only on advocating bread and butter issues.
Through its history, NUS has shown that it started off by being an ‘apolitical’ organisation before removing the ‘no politics’ clause in its constitution during the protest of 1968. They then continued to advocate on national issues and not only on bread and butter issues among their students. The NUS model is a model of complete independence of a student-run organisation in defending the students’ interests and at the same time being financially independent.
However, some of the opposing voices from the Malaysian societies argued that, by voicing out on an issue collectively, it may contradict to their societies’ constitution of ‘apolitical’ stance. It is crucial here to understand that this opposing voice may be related to the problems of representation and legitimacy that have been mentioned above. On top of that, these Malaysian societies are also accountable to their stakeholders, their corporate sponsors, and seeing as being too ‘political’ on issues that are very hard to draw the line between ‘partisan’ and ‘non-partisan’.
UKEC should welcome changes and it should adapt to the tides of time – but the changes should take a bottom-up approach.
We have always tried our best to thread on these lines as safely as possible without making it worse but sometimes this may also mean that we are seen as not reacting. However, it is also argued that by not reacting, it is also a reaction, a choice that affects the equilibrium of the political dynamics.
Undeniably, I admit that the time is ripe for UKEC to set a new tone for future generations of UKEC as the transitional period of the changing of administrations creates an opportunity for us to redefine our direction in terms of our student activism.
This also leads to the prisoner dilemma game where both sides are trying to see each other options before deciding on which option to pick. This is where UKEC as an established institution with its strength as an umbrella body should play the role to set the path for the other political actors to react upon. It should not wait for the external actors to act since it may lose the first-mover advantage and loses out the opportunity to revamp itself in its effort to adapt to the tides of time.
On this, the conversation should be continued and views from the bottom should be listened.
There is no point in having a radical transformation without having a proper discussion.
There is no point in adapting to the tides of time without the support and demand from the grassroots.
UKEC has so much to lose than it will gain from the unsuccessful transformation. Its relevancy will be further questioned and its existential crisis will be back in the main agenda. If the transformation fails, all the efforts that we have done so far, possibly, will be in vain.
The impact of the UKEC initiatives to contribute to nation building through community development and youth employability will be reduced. Resources are finite and being self-sustain financially will be a very big leap of faith for everyone, which some would not willing to sacrifice.
This is the status quo that everyone should understand. UKEC should be ready to change the status quo, if needed, to take lead in this transformation, only if everyone is in this together. For we are indeed stronger together. Hence, as argued, the changes should come from the bottom to the top, from the local level to the national level.
Everyone should play their roles in this and not only UKEC. The responsibility is to serve the Malaysian societies and if asked to change, UKEC have to adapt. UKEC should always adapt and if changes truly are needed, UKEC should be ready to make necessary preparations.
Lastly, I really hope it is not a mere idealist perspective to aspire that the student activism landscape to always advance, and move forward, to always adapt to the tides of time. It will be my personal guilt to leave the scene without doing my best in serving the students that have mandated me to do so.