THE DISCOURSE : Public undergrads in the hot seat


THREE years since students at Universiti Malaya (UM) started conducting campus elections on their own, the student body has reportedly shown a marked difference in their political awareness.

This, said UM deputy vice-chancellor (Student Affairs) Prof Dr Sabri Musa, is due in part to the varsity’s effort to increase political literacy among students.

“We can see a difference in our students’ ideas and perspectives about politics and elections,” he told StarEdu.

In 2019, UM held its first campus election that was independently run by students.

This created an environment where students could participate in decision-making, hence increasing awareness about the political system in Malaysia, said Prof Sabri.

 Prior to 2019, campus elections had been handled by staff from the student affairs division, he explained.

This had led to extended working hours until the wee hours, especially during vote counting, thus affecting the same staff who had to return to work in the morning.

“Fewer issues have arisen since the elections were handled by the students,” he shared.

“To create trust in our students, we have to initiate an environment where we trust them in handling major events.

“This helps us in so many ways where we can have discussions more freely and openly, and also get students’ opinions on their skills development,” he added.

Prof Sabri also pointed out that independent campus elections give students experience in handling the elections themselves and help them understand the electoral system.

“It equips our students with relevant soft skills such as leadership, critical thinking, communication skills and problem-solving, as well as provides experiential learning.

“It is a learning process for them in terms of upholding confidentiality and integrity while handling the elections,” he said.

 During the early stages of implementing the independent campus elections, the university had met with several challenges, he shared.

“There were no guidelines at first but with the help of the Higher Education Ministry and other public universities, a set of documents that acted as election guidelines were developed.

“We had to amend our university’s constitution with the help of our legal department,” he recalled.

Seeing the positive outcomes, Prof Sabri encouraged tertiary students to get involved in their campus elections.

“This will help them grow into better citizens and prepare them for life after graduation, which would be tough, especially during the transition to the endemic phase of Covid-19.“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them and I believe they will appreciate it,” he said.

Elected representatives

Fresh from retaining his general seat at UM’s fourth student-led campus election held last month, law student Arvinkumar K. Mohan has new goals in mind for the student union.

Prof Sabri: To create trust in our students, we have to initiate an environment where we trust them in handling major events.Prof Sabri: To create trust in our students, we have to initiate an environment where we trust them in handling major events.

“With this win, I hope to pave a new way forward for the student union, to expand its potential and to serve the best interest of the students,” said the 23-year-old, who won the seat with 3,458 votes – the third highest among those who contested.

According to the elected representative from the Suara Siswa pro-student movement group, the student union embodies a functioning student government akin to every arm of the government, where there is a legislative chamber to guide the executive.

“I was the secretary of strategy planning in the previous Cabinet, helming six departments under my portfolio, which spearheaded some of the union’s most fundamental initiatives in legal affairs and campus policies.

 “Through my portfolio, I drafted the framework now named Rules of Procedure and Conduct of the Select Committee 2022, which details how the select committee at the university’s parliamentary level would function and operate,” he said.

“Being a law student myself, I have always operated within the means of the rule of law in adherence to the larger principle that there must be compliance to the procedural requirements of law,” he added.

Asserting that clean politics with proper discourse on manifestos, ideological perspectives and the merits of the candidates is what the youth are looking for, Arvinkumar said that student-led campus elections give no room for entities to have any attempt to control outcomes, which must be emulated by other universities in the country to ensure the democracy process in campuses is protected.

“Any campus election that is not student-led, in my opinion, is contrary to the notion of modern democracy,” he added.

Medical student Kavita Thamil Chelevan, 22, who was elected a faculty representative in 2021, said she had been actively involved in curriculum reviews, meetings concerning the safety and welfare of students, and research to obtain data before raising issues to the faculty’s administration.

Her stint, she said, had enabled her to gain a better understanding of the country’s democratic process.

Campus elections and general elections are similar, she explained, as they are both representative democracies, where a representative is elected to speak for a community to ensure their rights and autonomy are upheld and their voices heard.

“Once candidates are elected, the Cabinet is formed with each cabinet member holding a portfolio of different aspects of student affairs.

“Different portfolios will then interact with one another to work on issues faced by students with similar work processes on both levels, namely, identifying problems, drafting solutions, procuring funding, and setting plans into motion,” she said.

Like Arvindkumar, Kavita stressed the importance of ensuring campus elections remain independent and autonomous.

“In the absence of external influences, students can campaign and be elected based on their own capabilities – instead of riding on an external party’s patronage – allowing the results to truly represent the students’ interest.

“It allows students to take responsibility and participate wholly in the democratic process, increasing political literacy such as understanding the structure of the student government and its roles before deciding to vote for their representatives,” she said.

Campus election committee

The recently-concluded fourth campus election at UM saw a total of 57.84% of 15,609 eligible voters casting their votes.

Students went to the polls from June 17 to 19, and the results were announced on the night of June 19.

Like the general elections, campus elections in UM follow a series of electoral processes which includes the establishment of an election committee, nomination day, campaigning week, voting day, tabulation of votes and announcement of results, said the varsity’s Campus Election Committee (UMCEC) president Nurul Nadhirah Mohamad Tajuddin.

“This year’s election committee involves a 36-member panel of undergraduates from different faculties who were selected through stringent interview sessions conducted by panellists composed of former UMCEC standing committee members, student union executives and representatives from all student parties.

“Every member selected will have received a consensus by the interview panellists upon evaluation of various criteria such as their credibility as students, experience in organising events, and ability to maintain neutrality when performing the roles of electoral administration,” she said.

As this was the first campus election to be conducted in a hybrid manner, she said UMCEC had played a major role in amending the Buku Peraturan-Peraturan dan Tatacara Pilihan Raya Kampus Universiti Malaya 2022 to integrate necessary regulations which allow future elections to be conducted either physically, virtually or both.

“Pre-pandemic, the election rules were tailored for a full physical election and over the past two years, an amendment had been made to facilitate a virtual election.

“After integrating both regulations into one amended document this time, we had successfully reduced repetition of information, simplified terminologies for easier understanding and reduced the need for further major amendments, should there be a change in the mode of election in the future,” she said, adding that the amended election rules underwent various stages of approval from the Students Affairs Division, UM Legal Unit, management committee and board of directors.

UMCEC External Affairs vice president Anis Reezwin Baharul Razi shared that a total of 10 general seats and 32 faculty seats were contested by 86 representatives from four student parties, namely, Suara Siswa, Angkatan Mahasiswa, Neo-siswa, Mahasiswa Progresif, and one independent candidate.

“All candidates attended the physical nomination day with a proposer and seconder on June 9, which went smoothly under the supervision of officers from the security office and students from the Police Undergraduate Voluntary Corps.

“A list of preliminary candidates was disseminated on our social media pages, followed by an objection period towards nominated candidates and an appeal period for objected candidates to contest against,” she said.

She added that all nominated candidates subsequently had one week to campaign physically at residential colleges, faculties and common areas, before the start of a three-day online voting session.According to Anis Reezwin, the committee had faced a low voter turnout of around 53% during last year’s online campus election.

“From a survey that was performed, the main reason was the low awareness of the campus election among undergraduates, especially freshmen, which led to us increasing our promotional activity for this year’s election through social media, physical buntings all over campus and student societies.

“We also decided to continue with the online voting system, which brings more convenience to students as they can vote at any time and anywhere,” she said.

Nurul Nadhirah added that transparency was strictly upheld throughout the voting and tabulation process.

“Working closely with experts from UM Centre for Information Technology, we ensured that the online voting system was safe from digital attacks and equipped with one-time password (OTP) verification through Short Message Service (SMS) for identification of voters.“We also conducted test runs with students prior to the actual voting date,” she said.

Zhi Yong, 22, a medical student at Universiti Malaya, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. To join Star-NiE’s online youth community, go to facebook.com/niebrats.

THE VIEWS

Making informed choices

Being voters in campus elections provide an opportunity for university students to apply their critical thinking skills in assessing the qualities of student leaders, as well as the relevance of the candidates’ manifestos, before they cast their votes.

This is crucial as they should know who they are voting for, and be able to gauge whether the candidates of their choice would carry out what they had promised.

Student representatives are important as they can help solve major welfare issues involving students such as fee hikes.

Being involved in decision-making and problem-solving will eventually enhance these students’ leadership skills.

The campus elections at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) are free from any external influences, with the formation of three major political parties, namely,

Pendaulat Mahasiswa, Demokrat UKM and Inspirasi UKM. Each party was established by the students themselves with a common motive and agenda, which is to improve the students’ rights.

Vivekanandh Mathiyalagan, 22, audiology student, UKM (Kuala Lumpur Campus) Student Representative Council vice president 4

Actively researching the election candidates’ backgrounds, attending their debate sessions and looking up their campaign manifestos are some of the things student voters can do to get to know the candidates better.

This is important as choosing candidates with good credibility and meaningful manifestos will grant them a better life on campus.

For students running for office, being elected will give them the exposure to how the student parliament works and how the Cabinet is formed, in addition to an understanding of the importance of their student party securing the majority of seats.

As a student representative, I actively seek the opinions and perspectives of my constituents.

I also listen to their concerns and help solve the problems they face.

The campus elections held at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) are very transparent.

To date, there have been no reports of voter fraud. The university authorities also play a significant role in ensuring the elections are free from external influences.

Ng Peng Han, 22, science dietetics student, UPM Student Representative Council deputy vice president (Academics and Research Unit)

Campus elections mirror general elections in the way they are conducted. We conduct our election campaign within a time frame set by our university.

We also use a variety of platforms to promote ourselves, such as public speaking and infographics through social media. We have seniors and former student representatives who guide us throughout the process.

On the polling day, polling agents and counting agents are required to monitor the polling and counting process.

Therefore, it gives students a better understanding of the general elections.

As student representatives, we help enhance engagement and establish strong relationships between the university and students by making students’ voices heard.

Students feel like they belong when they believe they are appreciated and their opinions are valued.

University officials, on the other hand, can get a better understanding of their students’ diverse cultural, economic, and geographic circumstances, allowing them to better serve students.

The campus elections at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) are quite transparent as the whole process is led by students and assisted by university officials.

During the nomination and polling day, the students themselves are fully in charge of the processes. For the voting process, student voters are required to use their own eLearning portal with password to make their choices.

Teoh Chai Yun, 21, architecture student, USM Student Representative Council Executive Committee (Media and Corporate Information) member

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