Brave New World (The Star)
19 April 2012
It is good that students are becoming more outspoken and imaginative in the assertion of their right to expression. But are their demands reasonable?
THE students are occupying Merdeka Square! Well, that’s a bit too dramatic, isn’t it? It is hard to describe a few little tents looking like a Smurf village as an “occupation”. Still, there is a small bunch of students hanging out at Merdeka Square making demands. I think this rather cute display of defiance is heartening. Sure, it is probably quite unsightly, these tiny tents looking like pimples on the otherwise smooth face of our Dataran, but to me it is good that students are becoming more outspoken and imaginative in the assertion of their right to expression. Besides, they are not hurting anyone. About their demands. The main thing that they want, if my understanding is correct, is free education and no more student loans. Is their demand reasonable? I believe so. Free higher or tertiary education is not necessarily a right. If we look at the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, only free primary education is an absolute right. Free higher education, however, while not an out-and-out right, is deemed an important aspiration. Signatories to this treaty have to make sure they move towards free higher education. Malaysia is not a party to this treaty. Therefore, under international law, the Government is not bound by this principle. My point is not whether Malaysia must provide free university education. My point is that what the students are demanding is reasonable and, in fact, recognised by the vast majority of nations in the world as a noble aspiration. But here is something else to consider. The current system of student loans has been severely criticised in other jurisdictions that practise it. The key issue is that young people enter the working world severely burdened even before they have started. This makes them immediately creatures of debt and severely restricts their ability to explore their full potential as they have to quickly get jobs that can pay the bills. In the long run, this inhibits creativity, entrepreneurship and the overall development of the nation. Now, Pakatan Rakat has been making promises with regard to education. One of them is that they will provide free higher education. Like I said, this is a noble ideal. The question is, of course, how will this be funded? Would more prudent and honest government spending provide the necessary funds? Or perhaps a more efficient tax system, where big wigs earning big money have to cough up what is due, rather than get their high-powered accountants to run circles around the revenue service? There is, however, one promise that Pakatan made which I do have some serious problems with, and that is the promise to build more universities. This country labours under the misconception that higher education means university education, and the more we have the better it is. I beg to differ. Higher education, that is to say education after secondary school, is diverse and encompasses universities, polytechnics, community colleges, vocational colleges, etc. Each caters to a different need and each has an important role to play. Not all secondary school graduates have the necessary strengths to go to university. Even today, there are many undergraduates who would really be better served in a more technical and less academic institution. Putting them in university does a disservice to them, their fellow students and the institution itself. Furthermore, who would staff all these new universities? High quality academics who can teach and do research are hard to come by. Especially considering the awful pay and working conditions most of us labour under. It would be far better if whoever is making the educational policies in this country think about diversifying our institutions of higher learning. Universities may appear more prestigious, but if these new universities are populated by staff and students who are not up to the task, then all we will have are white elephants producing shoddy papers and unemployable graduates.
This final paragraph was not published in The Star
I think I’ll meander over to the Dataran to have a look at these
students camped there. They might be unsightly (but then I find students
unsightly in the best of times), but at least they are bringing to fore a very
important issue and I hope that this occupation is the beginning of real and