WONG Yan Ke is now famous for his one-man protest at his university convocation on Oct 14.
There is that photo of him in his graduation gown and mortar board holding up his placard listing his reasons calling for the resignation of his vice-chancellor.
But before that, he was in the news as one of the six Universiti Malaya students who were harassed and assaulted by pro-Najib Umno members for holding a mini-protest against the former prime minister on March 21 this year. There is that photo of Wong being roughed up while an Umno member had him in a rear chokehold.
Wong, 23, was University Malaya Association of New Youth president. That and the two incidents show he is quite the committed student activist and his one-man protest must be his last hurrah as a UM undergraduate.
He is my fellow alumnus as I, too, am a UM graduate but we couldn’t have been more different. All I did was attend my lectures and tutorials, study in the library and hand in my assignments on time. I didn’t live on campus as my family home was close enough for me to walk to class, so I rarely got involved in student activities.
Even my convocation is a very vague memory, partly because it was so long ago – 1981 – and because it was really quite a boring affair.
I was quite the indifferent student. But then, there wasn’t much going on during my time, unlike the student activism that took place in the 1970s.
Also, the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) was firmly in place. Following the student protests in 1974-75, the UUCA was further amended to clamp down on such activism and this effectively stopped students from getting involved in politics. (Interestingly, the amendments were tabled by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was then Education Minister).
This is the very legislation that current Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik said would be replaced next year with a new law that would “restore academic freedom and power to students”.
If that is the spirit and intention of the promised new law, do Wong and what he did fall within that ambit?
He has been praised and pilloried in equal measure. He was rude, he had no right to disrupt a ceremony involving many others, he should have used other platforms, and so on.
No, says the other side. He had the right of freedom of expression, he did not use nor try to incite violence, and any disruption he caused was brief and minor.
As for using the wrong platform, one can argue that Wong was clever to use a ready-made stage and audience at no cost to him. And since he was calling for the dismissal of his VC, a venue in the university should seem completely appropriate.
Internationally, student activism actually has a long history. In his article published in the book Student Protest: The Sixties and After, Angus Johnston writes: “For as long as there have been colleges, there have been students who resisted institutional authority, and times when that resistance has flared into protest.”
The book editor, Gerard J. De Groot, writes in The Culture of Protest: An Introductory Essay that “Students are often at the cutting edge of social radicalism since they alone possess the sometimes volatile combination of youthful dynamism, naïve utopianism, disrespect for authority, buoyant optimism, and attraction to adventure, not to mention a surplus of spare time.”
And history shows that student activism, which can be traced back to the 13th century, has brought changes to society and politics and it is alive and kicking all over the world today.
Still, all that youthful fire diminishes as one grows older and the harsh realities of life as a working adult take over. That surplus spare time is no more.
Added to that is the reality of Malaysian politics and society. Wong’s cause is divisive because it pits Malays against non-Malays. He didn’t plan it that way but the genesis of his protest is the Malay Dignity Congress, which he and others deemed racist.
Malays of course see it as yet an attack and affront on their race and authority by disrespectful non-Malays.
Because of that, his fight is unlikely to pick up momentum unlike the way Bersih, whose cause was free and clean elections, which was neither racial nor religious, did.
Still, even as Wong’s time as man-of-the-hour passes, he should be lauded for his singular act of defiance.
He may not be in the class of the Chinese man who stood up to tanks in Tiananmen Square or the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush but he joins the ranks of Malaysian student activists that include the likes of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Hishamuddin Rais, Tian Chua, Elizabeth Wong, Adam Adli and K.S. Bawani.
Society needs rebels like these people who refuse to conform or ignore injustice and wrongdoing and have the courage to act. Individuals can become powerful rallying points for important causes like what Mahatma Gandhi did for India’s independence and in this generation, what Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg is doing for climate change.
Whether Wong can go on fighting for what he believes in after leaving university, the way Tian Chua and Elizabeth Wong did for years before becoming elected politicians, remains to be seen.
But he at least made the convocation ceremony that day for UM graduates of 2019 pretty memorable.
Perhaps more important is to see whether his protest and the ensuing controversy will spook Maszlee and Pakatan Harapan to change their minds on restoring academic freedom and power to students.
If that happens, that could be a cause that could very well rock campuses throughout Malaysia.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.