Student power

From the campaign to protests to the big day – and more protests – StarEducation puts the spotlight on campus elections and how students are rewriting the rules of campus politics.

TRY as he might, Universiti Malaya (UM) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Ghauth Jasmon could not hear himself — despite being the only one in the varsity’s Dewan Tunku Canselor with a microphone.

No, there was no problem with the sound system. There was, however, a big problem with the raucous students who seemed bent on bringing the house down.

Before him sat two camps of candidates, each praying – some literally – for personal triumph and victory for their party in the campus polls which took place that very day.

Above them, two hordes of opposing supporters faced off, greeting each announcement with cheers – or jeers.

Unfurled banners, slogan chanting, songs and even a mascot – which could have passed as cute under happier circumstances – were all ingredients of the highly charged affair.

“Please maintain calm,” advised Prof Ghauth constantly, to no avail. And the less dignified hushing did not work too well either.

Welcome to election night at UM.

It was not your run-of-the-mill day at varsity, but then again, there were few such days in the week leading up to the campus polls.

Dissatisfaction with the e-voting system saw the pro-Mahasiswa front organising press conferences, and their representatives even met Prof Ghauth and deputy vice-chancellor (Student Affairs and Alumni) Assoc Prof Datuk Dr Azarae Idris for crunch talks.

Still, campus life was not at a standstill – yet.

It was during this period when Speakers’ Corners made their long overdue comeback at public universities.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and UM were the first two varsities to reintroduce the corner, and various candidates made – or attempted to make – full use of the new avenue to kick-start their campaigns.

Interestingly, Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah got a first-hand taste of this at the reintroduction of UM’s Corner on Jan 26, two days before the campus polls.

Taking up the loudhailer, Saifuddin gamely invited the students to join him on stage.

However, what transpired next was quite unexpected, as the predominantly pro-Mahasiswa crowd eagerly obliged — turning the one-hour reintroduction into something of a pro-Mahasiswa rally.

The first two Penggerak Mahasiswa speakers did not anticipate the barrage and their calls for unity on campus were debunked and derided by subsequent pro-Mahasiswa speakers.

“It’s true that unity is a virtue which should be fostered,” said Abdul Hadie Suhaimi, 23, a third-year Genetics and Islamic Studies student.

“But let us not unite behind a misguided cause. Do not unite for the sake of unity. Rather, unite for the truth – not deceit.”

Spurred by their slogans “Hidup, hidup, Mahasiswa (Long live undergrads),” and “Tolak, tolak, kezaliman (do away with cruelty)” – popular pro-Mahasiswa refrains – Abdul Hadie used the heat of the moment to endorse his preferred candidate, Henry Ojukwu – an international student from Nigeria (See sidebar).

Other speakers like former Students’ Representatives Council (SRC) president Ridzuan Mohammad preferred to keep their eye on destiny.

Referring to former international student leaders like current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ridzuan said that students could be responsible for seismic shifts in national politics.

“Student leaders in Iran galvanised society to topple the Shah, and Afghan students played a big part in resisting invasion by the former USSR,” he said.

“We must recapture that same imagination and spirit in Malaysia. We can make a difference.”

Digging the trenches

Ridzuan’s prophetic rhetoric summed up the hope that a repeat pro-Mahasiswa victory was achievable. Traditionally on the receiving end, the front had pulled off a stunning upset the previous year by the slimmest of margins – 21 seats to 20.

Despite this, Ridzuan was under no illusions.

“Achieving a result is one thing, maintaining it is quite another,” he said. “The contest is awfully close this year and it could go either way.

Other pro-Mahasiswa candidates agreed and quite a few rejected the age-old maxim that incumbents hold an advantage – however slim.

“We are pro-Mahasiswa students and we are always the underdogs,” said a supporter.

The ‘us versus them’ mentality intensified as polling day loomed, and the emotive flux was reflected by the changing campus landscape.

Banners, posters and fliers were the order of the day and candidates from both camps were out in force during the two-day campaign period to win the hearts and minds of their fellow students.

They set out to woo fence-sitters who had yet to make up their minds and first-time voters with no inkling of campus politics.

The same applied – to varying degrees – at other public universities which held their polls during this period.

It was generally accepted that the pro-Mahasiswa front was gaining momentum and although there were no other shocks of UM’s magnitude in the previous poll, pro-Mahasiswa candidates would not be pushovers.

The only exception was Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) – the nation’s apex university – in Penang, where sense and sensibility prevailed – apart from one incident where a student went berserk and began slashing pro-Mahasiswa banners.

But with only 15 out of 39 seats being contested, there was hardly a contest to begin with.

Left or right?

The short campaign period – which lasted a week in the last two polls – saw many candidates campaigning so feverishly that time seemed to stand still. However, time just ran out and many were left ruing missed opportunities.

Candidates from both sides said that a longer campaign period was ideal as cramming everything into two days could be detrimental to their machinery’s effectiveness – and their personal well-being.

In fact, this seemed to be the only thing Penggerak Mahasiswa and pro-Mahasiswa candidates could agree on, and their otherwise testy relationship was all too evident before the unofficial results were announced at UM.

To maintain order — and unintentionally signifying the political divide — UM students were ushered into the Dewan Tunku Canselor through different entrances.

Guided by signboards, pro-Mahasiswa supporters used the left entrance while their Penggerak Mahasiswa counterparts hugged the right door.

For most UM students, it was standard modus operandi which applies on an annual basis, but the uninitiated would probably be left with raised eyebrows.

What do the two sides stand for, and why the animosity?

Simply put, the Penggerak Mahasiswa camp is known to support a varsity’s administration, while the pro-Mahasiswa takes the side of the students. And if external links are to be believed, the former are linked to Government political parties while the latter gravitate to the Opposition.

The link is denied as vehemently as it is agreed on, and candidates and supporters alike did little to clear the confusion.

Nurul Ain Zainal Abidin, 23, a Penggerak Mahasiswa supporter, believed that the pro-Mahasiswa front’s victory in UM last year stemmed from a spillover of sentiment from the last general election.

“In many ways, UM students – and those of other public universities – form a mini-Malaysia,” she said. “The student dynamics tell a lot.”

Part of the Penggerak Mahasiswa machinery for the last three years, Nurul Ain went on to state that the cumbersome weight of external politics even led to the shedding of the pro-Aspirasi tag on Dec 21, 2008.

“Too many students were linking us with Government political parties,” she added.

Another Penggerak Mahasiswa who spoke under condition of anonymity confirmed the link in some cases but insisted that it did not apply to all candidates as some contested on their own accord.

Identity crisis

However, others downplayed any link, a few even denying the existence of Penggerak Mahasiswa!

“There is no such thing,” said a candidate when asked about his affiliation – his displeasure evident. “We all contest on individual capacity and I don’t see the need to politicise things.

“We are all UM students and we are one. There are no factions.”

Hence, it was a tad odd when that candidate followed the Penggerak Mahasiswa signboard into the Dewan Tunku Canselor.

“If they ‘don’t know who they are’, you can bet that they are Penggerak Mahasiswa candidates,” said a final-year Accounting student in jest.

“Many have links but they do their best to deny them.”

Thankfully, there was no such conundrum with the pro-Mahasiswa front.

Also, there are some truly independent candidates who contest on their own accord – without taking sides.

UM’s Law Faculty is traditionally represented by independents, and Law Society president Affendy Ali Dally said that it was important to stay above the fray if the best interests of students were truly at heart.

“An independent judiciary is pivotal in any country,” he enthused.

“Likewise, the Law Faculty disagrees with the intense politicking which occurs in the campus polls.

“Our two independent representatives can now work for all students in the faculty without bowing to any pressure.”

But so great was the contest at UM that Goh Seong Ling, 21 – the other independent candidate who won uncontested at the Faculty of Dentistry – was contemplating his allegiance in the advent of a tie.

“I don’t think it will come to a draw but if it happens, I will have to consult my faculty members to see which side they want me to support.”

United we rant

Thanks to e-voting – which was implemented for the first time at UM – the unofficial results were released at 7pm and many a journalist was led to believe that they could file their stories easily.

However, the night took an unexpected twist and the pro-Mahasiswa front refused to accept the legitimacy of the results.

Citing an ethical breach, around 200 protesters gathered around the varsity’s Dewan Tunku Canselor, refusing to budge until they were allowed to meet with Prof Ghauth.

The patient vice-chancellor relented and met 10 pro-Mahasiswa representatives for three hours the following day, leading to the week of protractions which has since been resolved.

The pro-Mahasiswa front was given a week to enlist an independent IT consultant to test the reliability and credibility of the e-voting system, and Prof Ghauth promised to act if there were any discrepancies.

However, Ng Hoong Ern, a final-year Computer Science student at Harvard University, declared that the system was foolproof and the results stood.

A relieved Prof Ghauth defended e-voting and denied that the system exacerbated the very problems it was supposed to prevent.

“I think the results were announced pretty early,” he joked. “Unlike last year, journalists did not have to wait till 4am.

“This is the first time we are using e-voting and I am willing to listen to the objections raised by the students. Some of them may have grounds.”

While the situation at UM was resolved amicably, other public universities were paralysed by uncertainty as tempers flared.

More than 300 pro-Mahasiswa students laid siege to the office of a varsity’s deputy vice-chancellor, preventing him from leaving the premises. The varsity’s pro-Mahasiswa front had lost the election, securing 14 seats compared to 21 by their Penggerak Mahasiswa counterparts.

The standoff continued until 3am when the university was forced to call in the police, which arrived with the Federal Reserve Unit in tow.

Also, seven pro-Mahasiswa candidates are contemplating taking their university’s administration to court after their victories were declared null and void.

Their alleged crime was campaigning online and as a group – activities outlawed by the varsity’s campus poll regulations.

Precariously fragile

Although the dust has since settled in many universities, the aftermath of the campus elections will require some healing.

It cannot be denied that a psychological rift – the result of cloak and dagger politics – exists, and the return to routine study life merely papers the cracks. Many will not forget the sense of injustice or frustration they endured.

And although there are winners on paper – regardless of the faction – it could very likely be a Phyrrhic victory as there will be no long-run benefit.

The intense politicking on campus has eroded traditional power bases and a new student cohort is emerging – one which pays no heed to the political process.

And based on their feedback, both the Penggerak Mahasiswa and pro-Mahasiswa fronts must stop being insular and get their respective houses in order.

“I can’t be bothered with voting,” admitted a 22-year-old Genetics and Molecular Biology student. “People can call me all sorts of things but I don’t care.

“Whoever wins will not make a difference. Nothing significant will get done.”

According to him, empty promises and bad politics were behind his disenchantment. However, other alarming factors were also involved.

“At least we had ‘better’ candidates last year,” he continued. “Many of them had good CGPA scores which ranged from 3.7 to 3.8.

“This year’s candidates are bad. Some of them only score 3.1. How can we vote for them when they can’t even look after their grades?”

USM pro-Mahasiswa spokesperson Lee Hui Fei, 22, confirmed the growing trend.

“Nowadays, it’s difficult to get students who will run as candidates,” she said. “A lot of students are not interested in campus politics.

“They feel that it does not concern them, a mindset we are slowly trying to change.”

To what degree

Another burning question arises: Are campus elections really that important or is it much ado over little significance?

Based on history, it cannot be denied that the SRCs at public varsities wield little power compared to the student unions of the 70s.

In their heyday, the unions even reached financial independence as they collected fees and used the money to run cafes and charities. In fact, the UM student union was so strong that it even provided bus services on campus and financial aid to less privileged students.

Juxtapose this with the “intercessor” role played by most student leaders today.

With that in mind, it is strange when candidates take themselves a tad too seriously at the polls. Sure, holding leadership roles in university may boost one’s curriculum vitae but it really isn’t a matter of life and death – not by a long shot.

In a way, too much power has been ceded to the university administration, and student leaders must be re-empowered before they can make any significant contribution to their peers.

But the onus does not lie solely with the universities.

It is a two-way street: university authorities should steadily empower student leaders with responsibilities, and student leaders must acknowledge that they cannot have it all their way.

Above all, the seemingly dichotomous model of power needs to go, and students leaders must learn to work together – no matter which faction they may represent.

The fact is that students are emboldened and it would be good if they could channel this newfound boldness into something cohesive and constructive.

As enthralling as they may be, campus polls are far more significant than the results themselves, and the sooner we address the deeper realities, the better.

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