Seeing that the role of athletes in the political scene has been thoroughly discussed on this site, I want to turn our attention to a different, but equally if not more thought-provoking issue that was raised in lecture. This is regarding the role of academia in politics. Now, whether the faculty members of an educational institution should remain politically unbiased is one debate, and one which I will not discuss in this post having no personal insight in it, but another that I will discuss is whether their students should engage in politics.
Student activists have been famous – or infamous, depending on who’s talking – for organizing energetic protests aimed at the many grievances and worries students may have. This covers a wide range of issues. We don’t have to look far, even in our own university, students protest whenever they feel it’s necessary. Some have been motivated by issues other than politics, like the recent rally that called for the firing of our Athletics Director. The kinds of protests I want to turn our attention to, however, are those which are politically motivated. Examples within the U of M are, among many others, the 1970s civil rights movements led by African-American students, and the more recent protests that called for more affirmative action in university enrollment (I’m unsure whether the latter would actually be classified as political or not in the American context, in Malaysia it most definitely would be).
There are of course, more examples within the context of the U of M, but obviously it is not exclusive to Michigan only. Student protests are an important subject all across the globe. From the tuition fee protests that spread like wildfire across the UK , to the Sunflower Movement protests in Taiwan earlier this year, to the protests against war criminal Milosevic in the late 90s led by Serbian students and intellectuals, students everywhere have protested against many issues, and their protests are sometimes (though rarely) pacifistic and peaceful, but often end up violent.
I’ll be focusing my analysis on two cases: the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and student activism in my own country, Malaysia, to which I can add most context and nuance to, and in the end I’ll come up with a conclusion to whether I believe students should or should not be politically active.
In Hong Kong, protests which were mainly led by student activist Joshua Wong, have been going on for two months. He, and the student activist group he founded, Scholarism, have been key players in keeping the protests in Hong Kong, which they dub the Umbrella Revolution, alive. They are protesting against what they perceive to be the Beijing government’s encroaching into Hong Kong politics and its subsequent stifling of Hong Kong’s democracy. Protests began peaceful, but eventually turned violent as clashes with police escalated. People have been questioning the efficacy (to borrow a term from lecture) of these protests, with plenty predicting their failure. These protests, though powerful and important, are not what the majority of Hong Kong citizens approve of.
The sheer and relentless energy behind these protests is similar with many other student-led protests around the world. This unforgiving energy is what gives student protests “its distinguishing color,” to ironically quote Edmund Burke.
In Malaysia, on the other hand, a particularly predominant notion is the “study first politics later” mentality.This was even advocated by Malaysia’s previous Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed. In fact, this notion is even ingrained in the federal law of the land in the University and University College Act (AUKU) that bars any student from “affiliation” or even “showing of support for any political parties”. Malaysian universities, both faculty and student body, keep themselves silent from criticizing the federal government because of fear of arrest or of expulsion from the university because of AUKU. One faculty member, Associate Professor Dr. Azmi Sharom was recently probed because he produced a paper critical of the government. In a different incident, a student was asked to attend a university disciplinary meeting with the possibility of expulsion for organizing a rally with the Malaysian Opposition Leader. This act is ridiculous and selectively enforced, obviously. But one key issue with this act and with the “study first politics later” mentality is that they assume that formal education in a learning institution and political activism are not only two mutually exclusive things, but things that those who attempt to reconcile should be punished for.
So, as promised, what do I think? I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to impose a top-down ban from students participating in politics. Dialogue is a key part of liberal democracies and to forcefully exclude anyone with links to any university from voicing their political opinions is absurd, if not idiotic. I’d hate to be a chicken and take a half-hearted stance on this, but in this case I must. I think students should most definitely be active in the political scene but I think student-led protests on serious issues too often turn out violent and hence should be discouraged.
If we look at recent protests against police brutality and their subsequent impunity, violence erupted in many places, Madison and Berkeley among them, where students led the protests. The protests in London had their far share of violence, but then there’s also Cairo, Rome, Tehran, Varanasi, Paris, Sofia, and (shockingly!) even Canada. Students should definitely participate in politics, but they should do so with dialogue and intellectual discussion. Protests should be an absolutely and ultimately last resort, which often is not the case. The risk of student-led protests turning violent and having that violence overshadow the very reason those protests began, for me, outweigh its possible benefits. Non-violent protests are effective, but students shouldn’t be leading them.