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    Updated on Wednesday, March 27, 2002 10:41 PM

Students and People Unite


Hassan Karim

September, 1974 is widely regarded as the peak for Malaysian students activism. It was this year that their slogan "Students and People Unite" became a reality.

The National Front - comprising a coalition of political parties, including some which had previously been in the opposition, i.e. PAS, Gerakan and the PPP - won the 1974 General Elections, as expected.

As many of the former opposition parties were now on the side of the government, the ranks of the opposition in Malaysia dwindled. The various student organisations filled this vacuum that had been created by the decline of the parliamentary opposition. Student organisations emerged as a pressure group and were highly critical of government policies.

Perhaps because of their non-partisan approach towards issues, they were able to draw the attention and gain support of the population at large.

1974 was also a year of great hardship for the people of Malaysia. Inflation had increased rapidly from 1973 and the price of rubber had fallen to record lows. The livelihood of rubber smallholders was seriously threatened. The people faced many difficulties as the prices of basic necessities soared. Shortages in housing and jobs further exacerbated the situation.

Tasik Utara

The Tasik Utara incident occurred in September 1974. It involved poor, predominantly Malay squatters who openly opposed the government. As in the case of Teluk Gong, the Tasik Utara incident virtually invited student involvement.

Tasik Utara is situated about three miles from the centre of Johor Baru where housing is a serious problem. The houses in the town are expensive to rent, which workers cannot afford. As the government had not taken any steps to provide low-cost housing for the urban poor, many of them were forced to become squatters.

Not long before the general elections of 1974, several poor families set up squatter houses in Tasik Utara. They were not stopped, even by land office officials. News of this spread and not long afterwards, more poor families, including factory workers, government labourers, hawkers, taxi and lorry drivers, moved in. Barisan Nasional leaders canvassing votes at Tasik Utara assured the squatters that their homes would be protected.

The 134 families who set up their homes in Tasik Utara called their village, Kampung Barisan Nasional. However, after the Barisan Nasional emerged victorious in the general elections, the leaders appeared to forget the promises they made to the squatters. The residents of Kampung Barisan Nasional got a rude shock when they received eviction notices from the Land Office warning them that their homes were to be demolished.

The residents appealed to the government against the demolition. They called upon the government to provide them with an alternative site on which they could build their homes. Their appeals fell on deaf ears. In despair, the squatters got in touch with the University of Malaya Students' Union (UMSU) hoping that the UMSU would come to their aid.

The hopes of the squatters were not in vain. As soon as UMSU received the telegram from the squatters, several students, including UMSU students, made their way to Johor Bahru. On the morning of Sept 15, several police trucks arrived at Tasik Utara. The squatters homes were demolished. Students of the University of Malaya led by Hishamuddin Rais pleaded with the authorities to call off the demolition, but their protests were in vain.

Nine people, including Syed Hamid Ali, the Secretary General of the People's Socialist Party of Malaya (PSRM), were arrested. They were released the following day after interrogation.

After the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) personnel and the demolition teams had departed, the squatters rebuilt their homes. However, on Sept 16, the FRU and the demolition squad descended once again on the kampung and demolished the rebuilt homes. They carried out their work with brutal efficiency. Planks and posts were split so that they could not be used again as building materials.

They destroyed the attap (roofing material) and were rude to the squatters, who included women and children. The students personally witnessed these brutal actions with their own eyes.

On Sept 16, after their homes had been demolished for the second time, the squatters - 60 families and about 300 people consisting of men, women and children and a baby - camped outside the Johor Secretariat Building, where they picketed day and night.

They put up banners, one of which read: "We demand justice. We want land."

At 3.15am on Sept 19, the police and the FRU quietly entered the camp site and arrested five people. Those who were detained included Kaliman Jaya, a squatter leader, Hishamuddin Rais, secretary-general of UMSU, Yunus Ali, an UMSU exco member, Syed Hamid Ali, secretary of the PSRM, Johor.

The just struggle of the squatters was supported by student organisations in all campuses. The University of Singapore Students Union also came in support. Students in Malaysia and Singapore collected funds to aid the unfortunate squatters of Tasik Utara.

The detention of several student leaders on Sept 19 provoked and deepened the student's struggle, particularly in the University of Malaya. On the Sept 20, more than 2,500 students from the University of Malaya demonstrated outside the Prime Minister's Department. They urged the authorities to release Hishamuddin Rais, Yunus Ali and the others who had been detained in Johor Bahru. The demonstration was indicative of widespread student support for the struggle of the Tasik Utara squatters.

When their demands fell on deaf ears, the students planned to demonstrate again on Sept 21. More than 2,000 students took to the streets peacefully, making their way to Kuala Lumpur. The FRU confronted them on their journey and fired tear gas. They also fell upon the students with batons, and many were injured. More than 10 students were detained, but they were released soon afterwards, as the authorities were afraid of growing students agitation.

Power struggle

Following the brutal action of the police, UMSU called for an emergency meeting. The meeting held on Sept 21 was attended by all the Residential Colleges Committees and other component bodies of UMSU. Following an in-depth discussion, it was unanimously decided that to avoid further police aggression, demonstrations would be held within the campus. The students also decided to take over the administration of the University of Malaya.

The students formed a co-ordinating body called the Majlis Tertinggi Sementara (MTS) or Provisional Supreme Council. At 2.30am on Sept 21, the MTS officially took over the UM administration in a peaceful and organised manner.

On the same afternoon, however, several self-proclaimed "patriotic" students met at the Arts Faculty and formed a "Majlis Tertinggi Nasionalis" (MTN) (Nationalist Supreme Council). They opposed the UMSU decision to form the MTS to take over the university.

At 8.30pm, members of the MTN advanced to strategic positions held by the MTS, including the UMSU secretariat, the university gates and the security office. Members of the MTS were forced to leave the UMSU secretariat. They used iron rods, bicycle chains and nailed sticks in their attack.

The UMSU president and several other MTS members were kidnapped and taken to the Dewan Tunku Chancellor. The MTN leaders tried to divert the attention of the students from the real issue at hand. Even the vice-chancellor of the university attempted to break the unity of the students by playing up racial issues.

It appeared that UMSU was to pay a high price for its involvement in the Tasik Utara incident and their decision to take over the university administration. The government which for a long time had been trying to crush the student movement now had an excuse to act against UMSU. Several days after UMSU took over the campus, the government suspended it.

Meanwhile in Tasik Utara, even though the leaders of the squatters and the students had been detained, the squatters continued to picket in front of the Johor State Secretariat building. At 5.30pm on Sept 22, the FRU surrounded the picket site and arrested 41 squatters and seven students. The squatters and students demonstrated in front of the Johor courthouse to protest the arrests. At this demonstration, three more students were arrested.

The Baling struggle

If the Tasik Utara incident was the prelude, the Baling incident was surely the climax of the student struggle in the post-1969 period. While Tasik Utara is in Johor, in the south, Baling is up north, in Kedah.

The Baling events began on Nov 19, 1974, when more 1,000 peasants demonstrated. Their demonstrations continued on Nov 20 and 21. On the 21st, more than 13,000 people from Baling and the surrounding areas of Weng, Bangar, Lanai, Pulai, Kupang, Tawar, Parit Panjang, Kuala Pegang, Siong and Sungai Lalang staged mass demonstrations, which converged on Baling.

Why did the farmers in Baling demonstrate? The answer lies in the misery and suffering they were facing.

Inflation from 1973 had caused the prices of food and other necessities to soar. Sugar, which had cost only 30 cents a kati, cost 60 cents: the price of flour rose fron 20 cents to 50 cents. As these prices increased, the price of rubber was falling, affecting a majority of the residents of Baling district, who were mostly rubber smallholders. The price of a kati of rubber could not purchase half a kati of sugar or flour.

As a result of their hardships, the peasants were forced to voice their sufferings. They bravely took to the street to protest and urge the government to raise the price of rubber and lower the price of food and other necessities within 10 days.

When it became clear that the government was not going to act positively on the demands within te given period, 30,000 people demonstrated in Baling on Dec 1. The people were angry indeed.
The struggle of the peasants was supported by students from the universities and others institutions of higher learning throughout the country. A big demonstration was held on Dec 3.

At the rally held on the same day at the Selangor Club padang in Kuala Lumpur, the students made several demands on the governments including:

1) the government must solve the problem of inflation immediately;
2) the price of rubber must be raised to reasonable levels; and
3) all corrupt ministers and chief ministers must be exposed and punished.

The authorities ignored the demands of the students. The authorities used the police to disperse the demonstration, and students who had gathered peacefully at the Selangor Club field were attacked with tear gas. The students retreated to the National Mosque, but the FRU even fired tear gas into the mosque and entered it. Altogether, the FRU arrested 1,128 students.

The arrest of the students reignited the students struggle. On the campuses, students continued to demonstrate, and this went on for a couple of days until the police entered the campuses early in the morning of Dec 9. Many of the student leaders were arrested.

At the same time, the government also apprehended university lecturers who supported the struggle of the students and the peasants. Among those detained were Prof Syed Husin Ali from the University of Malaya, Anwar Ibrahim, a youth leader; Kamarulzaman Yacob, UMSU president, Ahmad Kamal Selamat, president of PMUSM (University of Science Malaysia Students' Union), Ibrahim Ali, president of KSITM (Institute of Technology Mara Students' Union), Rahman Rukhaini, president of PMUKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Students' Union) and Adi Satria, UMSU's assistant secretary-general.

Student resistance did not even end even with the arrest of so many of its leaders. However, pressure from the government in the form of threats and manipulations and the use of racial issues to undermine students unity resulted in the weakening of the student movement. The government capitalised on these weaknesses and vulnerability to table draconian laws in Parliament.

The 1975 amendments to the UUCA 1971 were passed by Parliament. Despite protests from students and opposition parties, the amendments were bulldozed through Parliament.

With enforcement of the Act, all student organisations were dissolved. This marked the end of an era when the student movement in Malaysia grew to become an important social and political force. As a substitute, the government set up Student Representative Councils, student bodies which have little power, freedom and authority.

Weaknesses

Every movement has its weaknesses; the following were some of the weaknesses of the Malaysian student movement which was crushed in the mid-1970s:

Racial problem: The race problem has always been a factor weakening the Malaysian student movement. This particularly evident in the case of the universities which have a large multiracial student population, like the University of Malaya. Despite this, there were many issues on which students from the various races united. Such issues included the struggle for university autonomy, opposition to US imperialism and popular struggles such Teluk Gong, Tasik Utara and Baling.

Inexperience: The tradition of students struggle in Malaya is still young. Hence, students have lacked experience in facing challenges that have come their way.

Moreover, the length of courses of study (over three or four years), limited student involvement. When good leaders graduated on completion of their studies, continuity and experience were often lost and not easily replaced.

Ivory tower: Although the student's movement championed peoples' issues from 1967 to 1974, a close study would reveal that the contact between students and the people, particularly those in the rural areas was far from being close or intimate. It was only in 1967, 1973 and 1974 that efforts to bridge this gap were given more serious attention.

Too issue-oriented: A clear weakness of the Malaysian students movement was its heavy issue-orientation, such that activities were only organised as issues came up. Thus much student activity was spontaneous in nature and not well-planned. Leaders seldom planned activities with a long term perspective.

Many students and their leaders were prone to complacency and many developed a care-free, and sometimes even irresponsible attitude. This may be due to the fact that the student movements are, by nature, not well-disciplined organisations. This lack of discipline contributed to this negative feature of the student movement.

Little support from intellectuals: The students movements seldom got support from academics and intellectuals who supported the students' struggles, their numbers were small. The majority of intellectuals were silent and were usually unwilling to be vocal. Because of this lack of involvement by the intellectual community, the student movement was unable to analyse issue with issues with sufficient depth.

Champions of the people

The extent of the contribution of the student movement to society at large is a difficult question. Despite this, the importance of a strong student movement must be recognised, especially in a young country like ours, where a large proportion of the people are poorly-educated and poor, and where political consciousness is rather confused.

We cannot deny that Malaysian students have a social responsibility. At the zenith of the strength, they emerged as champions of the people. The present curbs on the student movement also stand in the way of the development of an independent, progressive intelligentsia in our country which can contribute to solving some of our fundamental problems.


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