Students & Politics

Speech by DAP Organising Secretary, Mr. Lim Kit Siang, at a forum on “Students and Politics” at the Second Annual Student Leadership Training Programme organised by the University of Malaya Students’ Union at the University of Malaya on Tuesday, 2nd April 1968 at 8 p.m.

Students and Politics

The subject this evening “Students and Politics” has become almost a set subject for annual forums in this campus, and had been discussed by student leaders, politicians, academicians for at least the past three years.

This is a healthy sign, because it showed that the students had been and are aware that there is some relationship between students and politics. But this also showed that the students are still unsure what this relationship ought to be, that no broad consensus has emerged among the students community as to the nature of this relationship.

If this evening’s forum could contribute to the emergence of such a consensus, then I think our discussions tonight will be more than ordinarily useful. For the students can then strike out to give content and shape to their role in politics, instead of being locked in a protracted debate as to whether they should have, and if so what, role in politics. Debate is well and good. Indeed, it is important. But it should never be allowed to sever the nerve of action.

All that we can do this evening is to give our ideas and suggestion. It is the students in the campus who must finally take and implement a decision on this matter. If, therefore, in the coming academic term, a campus-wide debate on this subject could be held, throwing up a student consensus, I for one would applaud it.

Should Students Play a Role in Politics?
Before we consider what role students should play in politics, we must first of all decide whether students should play any role in politics in the first instance.

“Politics” can mean two things. Firstly, party politics, involving participation and activity within the framework and organisation of one of the existing political parties in the country. Secondly, non-partisan national politics.

National Politics
I will deal with the latter category first. I will give an unqualified “Yes” to the question whether students should play a role in national politics.

Politics in modern life has become all-embracing, affecting every aspect of human activity. Either by commission or omission, politics has become the major force shaping national affairs.

Politics decides whether a country makes economic progress, stagnates or regresses. Politics decides whether there is widespread corruption, nepotism, sloth and decadence in public life. Politics decides whether man continues to be exploited by man, that large sections of the people continue to eke out a miserable living, while a small group wallows in privilege, plenty and prosperity.

Politics decides whether every child has an opportunity to educate and advance himself, or is condemned to live out his life without opportunity, in ignorance, poverty and hardships. Politics decides whether a nation builds up an efficient defence system, or becomes easy prey to would-be aggressors through internal disunity and disharmony. And it is politics which decides whether we build up a nation of Malaysians, or break up a multi-racial experiment.

How, then, can anyone in all seriousness, say that citizens should not concern themselves with these momentous issues of the country? And university students are citizens, many of whom have come to voting age. They are as duty-bound as any other citizen to make their contribution towards national progress.

Student power helped to throw out the decadent, degenerate and disastrous Sukarno regime in Indonesia.

Student power dramatised the poverty, suffering and misery of the masses through their demonstrations against starvation and the spiralling cost of essential foodstuffs in India.

Student power drove out the corrupt Synman Rhee regime in South Korea.

Student power goaded the nation’s conscience on civil rights and the unpopular Vietnam war in the United States.

If students should only confine themselves to their studies, then the students in Indonesia, India, South Korea and the Unites States must have erred.

Have they? They have not. On the contrary, their countries have a lot to thank them for, as they had spearheaded creative and constructive movements for social betterment and national good.

Students, in every country, have a role to play in national politics. What this role is depends on the circumstances and problems in each individual country.

There are those, of course, who would not concede that students should do anything else except to mug. Such people are commonly to be found in the Alliance, many of whose leaders had had a rough time when they appeared before student audiences.

The Alliance attitude is best typified by that of the Mentri Besar of Perlis, Tan Sri Sheik Ahmad, who said in November 1966:
“The University of Malaya, after all, is a government institution. The undergrads should not abuse the privilege they enjoy of studying in it.

“Their duty is to attend lectures, train for their chosen profession and learn, at the same time, to be good citizens.”

In other words, the Sheik Ahmads in the UMNO and the ruling party want all University students to immerse themselves in their books, lecture notes, tutorials and closet themselves from the outside world till after graduation. If any student dares to look up from their studies, and breathed a word of dissent on the way the government is being run, or the direction the nation is heading, then such a student would be guilty, as Tan Sri Sheik Ahmad has described it, of abusing the privilege he enjoys of studying in the University.

If the UMNO leaders have their way, then the University of Malaya will be churning out unthinking and unfeeling engineers, scientists, doctors, economists and teachers, cogs in the wheel, human robots.

For this must be the result of a policy which requires university students, during the most impressionable years of their lives, to stifle their idealism for justice and suppress their instinct for action.

We will have university graduates who have “eyes that see not, ears that hear not, and heart that feels not.” All of them will have been stripped of their social conscience and idealism. Such people will be more than half way to join and defend the Establishment.

This is exactly what the Alliance Establishment wants. Many of Malaysia’s present problems can be traced to the failure of the intelligentsia to take a stand on national issues. Students who become fearful of the shadow of their beliefs will be even more pliable and amenable in adult life.

No one will quarrel with the argument that in an undeveloped country, university education is a privilege, with responsibilities.

The immediate responsibility of a university student is to qualify in his chosen field of study, so that the country gets more engineers, doctors, economists, scientists and technologists to modernise the society.

But an even higher responsibility of university students, precisely because they have been privileged to enjoy greater opportunity, is to serve the nation.

I cannot accept the argument that university students should only mind national problems, after they have graduated.

What good for instance, can an engineer, doctor, economists or scientist do for a country if that country has disintegrated?

The challenge to university students is this: They must qualify for whatever course they have taken on, and yet at the same time, play a useful role in the national affairs of the country.

I have said earlier that the role of students in national politics differ from country to country, depending on the circumstances and problems of individual countries.

We should ask ourselves: What is the fundamental problem facing Malaysia, which transcends party politics and personalities, and which must be the concern of all Malaysia citizens, including students.

In my view, the question is simply this: Whether Malaysia is to become a nation of Malaysians, or whether it is not.

There can be no argument that if ours is not a nation of Malaysians, then we are only waiting for the day when racial antagonism will boil over into conflict and bloodshed. When this happens, students, lecturers, professional men, intelligentsia and what-have-you will all perish together. This, I submit, is the first item of business on the national agenda, which students must also commit themselves.

For the discerning, the signs are many and serious that Malaysia is in a crisis of nation building, and that unless something bold and imaginative is done, Malaysia is likely to tear apart.

On August 31, 1957, Malaya achieved independence. A decade later, in November 1967, the first major racial riots took place in Penang, spreading to Perlis, Kedah and North Perak.

Devaluation of the old Malayan currency was only the flash-point of the riots. There would have been no explosion on so serious a scale if deep-seated economic and social forces had not created a pent-up state of emotional and racial tension which sought release upon the slightest provocation.

Although the Penang riots are now past, and devaluation has ceased to be a burning issue, the deep-seated economic and social forces which created the conditions for a racial flare-up are still there. Unless these forces are eliminated, the potential for racial conflict will increase with every passing day.

What are these deep-seated social and economic forces? They are the frustration, discontentment, disappointment and anger of the Malaya and the non-Malays at the present social system, though for different reasons.

Instead of tearing down all barriers which divide the various races in this country, we see a new and more dangerous source of disunity arising through the deliberate encouragement of the government: namely, the division of Malaysians into ‘bumiputeras’ and ‘non- bumiputeras’.

The problem of nation building, then, is the crucial problem today, the problem of bringing up a Malaysian-centred generation instead of a Malay-centred, Chinese-centred or Indian-centre generation.

The students have deep stakes in this, because if we fail in our multi-racial experiment, there will be nothing left for the students and youths of today to inherit tomorrow.

To sum up, I will say the role of students in Malaysia is to mobilise student opinion and power behind a commitment to bring about a multi-racial nation.

How and in what manner student opinion and power is to be mobilised in Malaysia, it is something which the students themselves must formulate.

I can think of three possible lines of action:

  1. Launch a round-the-year education programme in the campus to instill into the students the importance of an uncompromising commitment to a multi-racial ideal in Malaysia, through talks, debates, forums, journals, rallies, demonstrations, etc.
  2. Sponsor studies into the economic, social, cultural and other causes of racialism, in order to better understand the phenomenon of racialism, and to stimulate public debate and understanding.
  3. Get all students, who are 21, to register as voters, and to support parties which are irrevocably committed to multi-racialism.

By urging students to commit themselves to a crusade for multi-racial nation, a do not mean that students should ignore other issues. What the students achieved in the case of suitability certificates in a feather in your cap. You should continue to be vocal and organised against any measure which is grossly unjust or wrong.

Party Politics
Before I conclude, I wish to discuss whether students should take part in party politics.

Firstly, I think it deplorable and disgraceful that five years after the inception of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, there is still no political club in the campus.

There should be political clubs, whether Alliance club, democratic socialist club, or capitalist club, for students inclined towards a particular political approach to discuss and hammer out their views. This is probably the only country which professes democracy but whose university is not allowed to have political clubs.

To the question whether students should be allowed to join political parties and take part in political activities, I will say “Yes”.
The two main reasons given against student participation in party politics are: firstly, students are immature and easily influenced; and secondly, it will affect their studies.

In rebuttal, I will say this: University students are mostly around or past 21 years of age, which makes them eligible voters. Now there are two classes of voters in the same age group – as non-university students of the same age can take part in party political activities. Is it seriously suggested that the non-university youth of the same age is more mature and less subject to influence?

Those who raise the argument that politics will interfere with students studies forget that in modern life, students are subject to all sorts of distraction and diversions, and that it basically depends on the student himself to exert self-discipline to attend to his studies. I really doubt that the percentage of failures in the university will be higher when students are allowed to take part in party activities than now.

The advantaged to the derived from student participation in party activities is that students will sharpen their sense of social commitment and purpose, and marry ideals with action.

Students who have put their beliefs and ideas into action are more wholesome citizens than those who allow their ideals and beliefs to be stifled in a campus where a psychology of fear prevails. The nation will also the richer from such an experience.