Unbowed by sedition dragnet, student and lecturers unite for solidarity walk

azmi sharom speech-WIRA6213

Azmi Sharom speaking at the “tree of academic freedom” during the solidarity gathering in University Malaya , 10 September 2014.

KUALA LUMPUR, 10 SEPT: The usually quiet campus of University of Malaya was rocked by a demonstration rarely seen in Malaysia’s often placid public universities.

The Solidarity 4 Azmi Sharom walk, reminiscent of the fiery student politics of yesteryear, sought to prove that even today, students and academicians refuse to be cowed into fear by the federal government stifling academic freedom with the Sedition Act.

At noon today, close to 500 students and lecturers from across faculties showed up for the protest triggered by the sedition charge brought against their lecturer Azmi Sharom.

The group consisting mostly of law students -many wearing a blue ribbon in support of the Law Society’s campaign for freedom of expression-  marched from the Law Faculty to the iconic Speakers Corner of UM. Speaker’s corner is a historical site on the university premises founded as a platform for people on campus to voice out freely opinions or issues that they chose.

The protest was organized by Universiti Malaya Academic Staff Union (PKAUM) and the UM students union.

The group marched with banners that said “Mansuhkan Akta Hasutan” (Repeal the Sedition Act) and “Free Azmi Sharom”. The braver of the lot showed off signs that read “Be Seditious”.

Azmi, an outspoken law lecturer, was charged for voicing his professional opinion on the Selangor MB crisis, in which he drew parallels with the 2009 Perak constitutional crisis.

The solidarity walk also received support from Pakatan Rakyat leaders such as Gobind Singh Deo, Yeo Bee Yin, Lau Weng San, Ng Sze Han, Teresa Kok, Ong Kian Ming, Rafizi Ramli, Nurul Izzah, Lim Lip Eng, Teo Nie Ching and Dyana Sofya. Kok and Rafizi are also facing charges under the Act many consider to be archaic.

But this is not a political gathering, said Faculty of Economics and Administration senior lecturer Lee Hwok-Aun, who spoke in support of his colleague.

“This is not even a demand for ‘special rights’ for academics, this is freedom we demand for all human beings.” Dr Lee was amongst the many lecturers also present in solidarity with Azmi Sharom.

Law student representative Fiona Lim giving a speech, she wears a blue ribbon in solidarity with the students' campaign for freedom of expression

Law student representative Fiona Lim giving a speech, she wears a blue ribbon in solidarity with the students’ campaign for freedom of expression

Several students also took the opportunity to address the crowd, using a loudspeaker and receiving many cheers. It is a rare sight for students to hold protests on sensitive topics in Malaysia’s tightly-controlled public universities where student politics are highly-regulated and academic freedom is curtailed by legislation such as the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971.

One of the student speakers, who identified himself as Najib from the Gabungan Mahasiswa Islam Se-Malaysia gave a fiery speech warning Prime Minister Najib Razak to stop “messing” with lecturers and trampling on their academic freedom. “Failure to heed this would result in a greater response from us,” he said.

University of Malaya Association of New Youth chief coordinator Leong Yu Sheng from the student council said that the demonstration was important for academic freedom because it is what differentiates university students from pre-schoolers.

“If students don’t feel the need to defend academic freedom, University Malaya will become a ‘tadika’ (kindergarten). We would then be producing robots with no competency whatsoever,” said the Engineering faculty student.

The spirit of University Malaya’s struggle for academic freedom also attracted students from other universities. Sarah from Kolej Damansara Utama (KDU),said that it was very empowering to see students stand up for the rights of academics.

“To those who didn’t attend the rally, I want to say wake up!”

“Give a sh*t! It is your responsibility to stand up for what is right in the country you love!”

Last to speak at the gathering was Azmi Sharom, who reminded that this was not merely a protest to “free Azmi Sharom”, but that it was about freedom of expression. He took the opportunity to speak out for the others deemed seditious by the BN led government.

azmi sharom-WIRA5892 (1)“We must ask for the freedom of Wan Ji, Ali Abdul Jalil, Haris Ibrahim, Safwan Anang, Adam Adli, for the ‘nama baik (good name)’ of the late Karpal Singh, Tian Chua, Uthayakumar, Khalid Samad, Rafizi Ramli, N Surendran, Teresa Kok, and journalist Susan Loon, and last but not least, which I think is the most important, President of ISMA (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman.”

“That is the difference between us and those who support the Act.”

“I want to say that it is not just bad for us, it is equally bad for the ISMA president; even if I completely disagree with everything he says, we must still protect his right to speak!” he said.

When interviewed by The Rocket, he said that academics cannot be fearful of expressing their professional opinions. If they are afraid of sharing their thoughts, he says, that research will bad, and teaching will suffer, and graduates will suffer, and the nation in turn would suffer.

He said that he does not know if the government would respond to the protest, but hopes that it would create awareness to the public – that you cannot put a leash on academics.

“I am also very proud to be part of this movement, I’m proud of the students and academics who showed up to protest,” he added.

Supporters in the Solidarity4AzmiSharom rally also witnessed the ‘reclaiming’ of the tree under which the speakers had addressed the crowd. “We will reclaim this tree, and call it ‘The Tree of Academic Freedom’”, said Dr. Lee much to the approval of the cheering demonstrators.

The rally ended after the crowd sang Negaraku while the Jalur Gemilang and a specially designed flag for academic freedom was flown as half mast, as a symbol of protest against the governments’ persecution of academia. -The Rocket

The group marched from the law faculty to the old Speaker's Corner of UM

The group marched from the law faculty to the old Speaker’s Corner of UM

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