UiTM Dispute Exposes the Necessity for Robust Student Activism and Academic Freedom in Malaysia

UiTM’s recent controversy sheds light on the pressing need for academic freedom & active student involvement.

Fayyadh Jaafar
5 min readMar 30, 2023

Oh, UiTM, that prestigious institution of higher learning where intellectual discourse and freedom of speech are nurtured and celebrated like nowhere else! Or is it? As we turn our attention to the recent events involving Syed Saddiq’s dialogue, one must wonder if this is truly the case.

In the most unsurprising turn of events, UiTM has chosen to deny the organization of the “Dialog Intern Bukan Buruh Percuma,” citing the need to preserve campus harmony and focus on spiritual programs during Ramadan. Yes, folks, it seems like the powers that be have decided that open discussions about the welfare of students are far too disruptive for the delicate environment of an educational institution. The irony is palpable.

Let us take a trip down memory lane to the golden era of student activism in the 1960s and early 1970s. Students then were no strangers to challenging the status quo and bravely fighting for the people, even in the face of great risks and challenges. They stood up against the atrocities of war and oppressive regimes and advocated for the rights of the marginalized. One could say that the spirit of activism was alive and well in those times.

But alas, the introduction of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU) changed the landscape of student activism significantly. While this article does not intend to analyze AUKU in its entirety, it aims to provoke discourse on the relevance of AUKU to the students of today.

Now, let us address the elephant in the room. Syed Saddiq, a young politician and the president of MUDA, has been critical of the current state of affairs in the nation. While we must not shower him with excessive praise, we cannot dismiss his efforts to engage with students and address their concerns. It is worth noting that UiTM’s decision to bar him from the dialogue is not only an affront to him but also a disservice to the very students the institution aims to educate.

Let us break down some key points that have emerged from this incident:

  1. UiTM’s justification for denying the dialogue is weak and unfounded. Preserving campus harmony and focusing on spiritual programs during Ramadan should not come at the expense of intellectual discourse and the welfare of students.
  2. The decision by UiTM does not align with the Ministry of Higher Education and other universities’ efforts to promote healthy discussions among students.
  3. Students should not be passive in the face of such actions by the university. They have every right to voice their concerns and participate in discussions that directly affect their welfare.

In light of these points, let us consider the larger context of student activism in Malaysia. While there have been amendments to AUKU over the years, the essence of the Act remains largely unchanged. It still stifles student activism and prevents them from fully engaging in politics and social issues. While some might argue that AUKU is necessary for maintaining order and administration in higher education, it is important to consider the implications of such restrictions on the growth and development of students as engaged citizens.

Now, with the recent events at UiTM, it seems that AUKU’s shadow looms large over the student population. The fear of speaking up and engaging in meaningful dialogue is palpable. This chilling effect is a direct result of the restrictive nature of the Act and its impact on the student body.

It is high time that we, as Malaysians, reevaluate the relevance and necessity of AUKU in today’s context. We must ask ourselves whether an Act that was introduced over 50 years ago is still suitable for the evolving landscape of higher education and student activism.

We must also consider the following:

  1. The need for a new legal framework that promotes student activism and enables them to engage in political and social issues without fear of repercussions
  2. The importance of fostering a culture of openness, critical thinking, and intellectual discourse in our educational institutions, which are crucial for the holistic development of our students
  3. The role of the Ministry of Higher Education in ensuring that universities uphold the principles of academic freedom and encourage students to be active participants in discussions that affect their lives
  4. The responsibility of educators and administrators to facilitate open and inclusive dialogues, creating spaces where students can express their thoughts and concerns without fear
  5. The necessity for students to be proactive in claiming their right to engage in intellectual discourse, challenge the status quo, and actively participate in shaping their nation’s future

As Malaysians, we must not shy away from critically examining the decisions made by our educational institutions, particularly when they seem to infringe upon the rights of our students. While we must not overly praise Syed Saddiq, his willingness to engage with students is commendable. It is essential that we cultivate a society that values open dialogue and intellectual exchange, regardless of our personal biases.

In the words of the illustrious Usman Awang, “Setiap zaman ada pahlawannya,” meaning “every era has its heroes.” Let us remember the courageous spirit of student activists from the past and rekindle that fire within our hearts. It is time for the students of today to rise and become the heroes of their own era, unafraid to challenge the status quo, fight for their rights, and shape the future of Malaysia.

As the sun sets on the horizon, casting its golden glow on UiTM’s campus, let it serve as a reminder of the potential that lies within our students—potential that can only be realized if we, as a society, give them the opportunity to question, to discuss, and to grow.

Let us not allow the shadow of AUKU or other restrictive policies to dim the brilliance of our youth. Instead, let us work together to create a Malaysia where intellectual discourse, freedom of speech, and student activism are not only tolerated but celebrated as essential elements in the pursuit of knowledge and progress.

The recent incident involving Syed Saddiq and UiTM is a stark reminder that there is still much work to be done in the realm of student activism and academic freedom in Malaysia. As Malaysians, we must not stand idly by as our students’ voices are silenced. We must advocate for change, encourage open discourse, and champion the values that will propel our nation forward.

Let us take this moment as an opportunity to reevaluate the role of student activism in Malaysia and work towards creating an environment where our students can flourish, unencumbered by the constraints of outdated policies and unfounded fears.

After all, the future of our nation lies in the hands of our youth. Let us provide them with the opportunities, encouragement, and freedom they need to soar to new heights and become the heroes of their era.



Fayyadh Jaafar

Former business journalist. I write other things here too, you know.