Naivete of Malaysian students
(from malaysiakini, Aug 26-27 edition)

There is only one word I can think of to describe the organisers of the conference to be held at Cambridge University this Oct 7 - naivete.

For them to invite the prime minister to deliver the keynote address and the appointed speakers to deliver their lectures, then to turn around and say that this whole thing is a "purely academic" affair, motivates my choice of word.

Any keen political observer, indeed any malaysiakini reader, can tell that no matter how "apolitical" this conference is purported to be, one cannot expect Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad not to advance his political agenda given a platform where he will meet with Malaysians studying overseas.

Certainly, the organisers may have the noble intention of making the conference a "purely academic" affair for the benefit of Malaysian students there and claim they have no political agenda.

As the president of Umno, however, Mahathir certainly has a political agenda. The organisers cannot deny this and must be prepared to face the criticism of those who would think they do indeed have some political motives in organising the conference.

Furthermore, their choice of speakers will lend credence to this belief. ISIS chairman Dr. Noordin Sopiee, Bank Negara governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz and minister Dr Rais Yatim may indeed be "esteemed" speakers of the topics they will be discussing, but their opinions will hardly be anything "new".

Their views and opinions are widely carried and reported by the local mainstream media. Indeed some of them are seen as staunch supporters of Mahathir, and have no qualms about making their political stance public.

For the conference to be a truly purely academic affair, the organisers should have a clear vision of what they want to achieve from it. If they want to have a truly intellectual and apolitical discourse, then surely there are other academicians, from Malaysia and the UK, who do not have such "political" leanings who could be invited to take part in the conference.

Otherwise, they have a choice of making it a truly political affair with both sides of the equation well represented.

I do not blame the organisers for this trouble that they have got themselves into. Certainly, for a student body to organise such a large scale conference, they would need a lot of cash injection i.e. sponsorship from corporate bodies in Malaysia.

These sponsors need to ensure that they get maximum return from such endeavours in the form of media coverage and other ways. This can automatically be achieved if a prominent government official officiates the function, such as the prime minister himself.

These are well-known facts in our country, given the political climate and patronage system practised here. Cumas and indeed many other student bodies organising such forums may have the intention of keeping the conference purely academic, but whether they know it or not they are providing a "political platform".

No links

This was evident at another conference organised by a separate Malaysian student organisation on Friday in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia Connect UK (MCUK), a student body formed in January had organised a forum on the K-economy, and its keynote address was delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

A few days before the forum, some reports were posted on the pro-reformasi websites alleging that MCA had given MCUK RM25,000 to organise this event in order to "win the support of the students". The founder of MCUK, Lee Chung Han emphatically denied the allegations, saying they have no links whatsoever with MCA.

Fair enough, but MCUK had also claimed that the conference was completely apolitical, yet while delivering his speech, Abdullah was quoted as saying, "You may not like BN but it is the only party to ensure the peace and harmony in our country."

Now if that did not sound like a political statement, I do not know what is.

Again, MCUK may have no idea Abdullah was going to include the "support BN" call in his speech, but given the political climate in our country, they should have been aware that such things are only to be expected.

Our politicians do not as yet have any commitment to making any discourse free from politics, or indeed to advance a purely academic perspective on at the state of affairs in our country. Certainly one would expect Malaysian students from such renowned universities to reach such simple conclusions just by observing our politicians in action.

This reminds me of a recent forum I attended organised by a group of young professionals called Promuda here in Kuala Lumpur. The pro-tem chairman of Promuda, Don Rahim also made the statement that the body will be "independent and apolitical".

Then he announced that the Promuda lecture series will be sponsored by Bank Simpanan Nasional, whose chairman Azim Zabidi is a top Umno Youth official. Azim himself was on hand to officiate the forum, given by ISIS deputy chairman Dr Zainal Aznam. Zainal himself offered nothing new in his lecture - he maintained that capital controls is good for our economy and that we are doing well etc etc. (Stuff we can easily lift off any mainstream press).

Again, Promuda might have all the good intentions but one can only say that their commitment to being "independent and apolitical" is naïve at best. One would expect that Promuda would at least be aware that Azim has been assigned by Umno Youth to bring the movement "closer" to students and young professionals.

But one thing Cumas, MCUK and Promuda have perceived correctly is the fact that there is certainly a hunger among Malaysian students here and overseas for a truly independent, intellectual and open discourse on the state of affairs in Malaysia.

What they do not need is just another forum where the usual suspects will deliver their usual speeches and come to the usual conclusions. To assume that Malaysian students would settle for another "predictable intellectual session" is indeed naïve.

Ariani Rustam
Malaysiakini (

ARIANI RUSTAM is a final-year undergraduate in Economics and Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is currently doing an internship at malaysiakini.


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