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Something symbolically powerful took place earlier this week when a lone student dared to use a solemn occasion to protest the increasingly rampant racism and bigotry in our institutions of higher learning. On Monday, University of Malaya (UM) student Wong Yan Ke displayed a placard at his convocation reprimanding Vice-Chancellor Rahim Hashim for his racist remarks at the recent Kongres Maruah Melayu (KMM) and demanded his resignation.

Swift and high-handed

The reaction was both swift and high-handed. The university condemned Wong’s actions and lodged a police report against him. He is now being investigated under Section 504 of the Penal Code, which deals with “an intentional insult to provoke a breach of peace.” Wong also claimed that the university is withholding his academic transcript.

In defending its tough response to the incident, the university said that it has “always upheld the principle of freedom of expression” but added that it must be exercised “in the right place and manner.” It also added that the incident had “tarnished the name of UM, the graduates and the entire UM community.”

I wonder if they ever stop to listen to themselves when they make such fatuous statements. UM upholding the principle of freedom of expression? What a joke! Tarnish the good name of the university? The vice-chancellor did that all by himself when he participated in the congress. If anything, Wong redeemed the principle of freedom of expression and restored some dignity to what was once the nation’s premier centre of learning.

In this, he followed in the illustrious footsteps of student leaders like Anis Syafiqah Yusof, Adam Adli and Fahmi Zainal who stood up to UMNO-BN’s abuse of power a few years ago.

It is interesting that just as this was unfolding, a ministry of education report came out indicating that a staggering 60% of first-degree holders remain unemployed a year after graduation. Stories of graduates selling nasi lemak or working as food panda riders are now commonplace. Instead of focusing on improving educational standards, our university administrations waste both time and resources on asinine exercises in bigotry.

A nation wallowing in police reports

The police response was also puzzling. Kuala Lumpur police chief Mazlan Lazim was reported to have said that “Wong’s actions had violated the graduation ceremony’s protocols and disrupted proceedings.” Surely, the police have better things to do than worry about protocol or disrupted proceedings. I thought the days when it was a crime to hold up placards or release yellow balloons ended with the Najib administration.

To digress a little, it seems like every time somebody is upset about something the first thing they do is rush off to make a police report.  Recently, hundreds of police reports were lodged against me over something I had written about a certain fugitive preacher from India. Imagine all the wasted man-hours that the police have to spend dealing with such reports and how much paper is wasted printing copies of all those reports. Bukit Aman must, by now, be swamped in a sea of paper.

And now, the police are also investigating two social media users over postings deemed to be insulting to the prime minister and the inspector-general of police. They’ve even contacted Interpol for help to track down one of the suspects who is believed to be overseas. I’m sure Interpol officials must be shaking their heads in disbelief.

I have no time, of course, for rude and vulgar people but their speech shouldn’t be automatically criminalized. Any politician or official who thinks his reputation has been sullied can always sue for slander (using their own money, I might add) rather than turning it into a police case.

In any case, if our public officials can insult our intelligence with black shoes and flying cars, with racism and bigotry, why can’t citizens return the favour with cartoons, placards and statements? Only religion (all religions), the monarchy and race-baiting should be off limits; everyone and everything else should be fair game.

Public officials ought not to be protected from the angst and criticism of voters and taxpayers. All of them should, in fact, emulate the example of our very gracious queen who even asked the police not to act against those who had criticized her.

When is an appropriate time?

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir has since chimed in to say that students have a right to demonstrate but a convocation ceremony is neither the time nor the place to carry out such a protest. Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq, always quick to echo his boss’s views, added that while he respects the right of freedom of expression and opposes the action being taken against Wong, “Convocation ceremonies are not the appropriate venue to hold protests.”

Both of them appear to have missed a key point: if they had done their duty by taking the vice-chancellor and others to task for their racist invective at the congress, Wong’s protest would not have been necessary. All told, this young student displayed more courage and integrity than most of our politicians.  Wong used the best platform available to him to make a point, and I, for one, will not fault him for it.

Indeed, I salute this brave young man for seizing the opportunity of his convocation to call out a vice-chancellor who disgraced a great institution. He knew the risks but acted anyway because it was the right thing to do. And in the process, he reminded us all that our battle for a new and better Malaysia is far from over.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur | 17th October 2019]