Universities need to be safe spaces for students to make mistakes

Universities need to be safe spaces for students to make mistakes
By Zan Azlee

In my free time, I teach journalism and media at several universities in the Klang Valley. I love teaching and have been doing it for almost 15 years now.

One of the main reasons for me is that I love my profession and job as a journalist and hope that I can spread this joy and create more journalists in Malaysia. Yeah! So righteous!

Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed recently is the lack of social and political awareness among our university students. And what is worse is that my sample of these students comes from journalism and media students – the exact crowd of people who shouldn’t be ignorant or apathetic about issues like these.

Whenever I give out practical assignments like writing news or feature articles and producing documentaries, I would usually instruct them that they need to find topics that are newsworthy and based on current affairs. You know, the eight newsworthiness values that all journalists hold to like the gospel.

But at the end of the day, the three most common topics that these students always come back to me with are (and this is in no particular order):

  • Relationships (the boyfriend and girlfriend kind)
  • Bubble tea
  • Makeup tutorials

I am not saying that these topics aren’t important. But when I have a class of thirty students and all 28 of them come back to me with story proposals that are about relationships, bubble tea and make-up tutorials, I get a little bit dejected. Especially since I make it a point to always discuss news and current affairs in class.

For many of these students, they can’t name any minister beyond our prime minister. Many of them give blank stares when I mentioned to them that the government has lowered the voting age to 18. These same blank starers don’t even know what parliamentary constituencies mean.

Okay, to be fair, not all of them are like that. Just 28 out of thirty.

This is troubling to me, and it is also strong proof that the University and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) has been extremely detrimental to the political and social development of Malaysian youth.

What triggered me to think about all of this is when I read that Umno Youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki (photo) plans to start clubs – the Umno University Students Club – in various universities in December.

I have no problems with Umno wanting to set up these clubs because I think universities need to be exposed to politics more. But it was funny to see how Asyraf got all defensive saying that he hopes there will be no resistance and they will “take to the streets and demonstrate” because it is now allowed under the Act.

Nobody has or is resisting it and he is already so worked up about it. Chill bro! Go for it! Nobody is stopping you. I would like to quote our beloved actor and rockstar Awie – “Ini semua poyo!” (this is lame).

With that being said, I think that universities and colleges need to play an active role now that the UUCA has been amended and politics is, rightfully so, been allowed to enter campuses.

Incidents like the single protest by Wong Kan Ye during his convocation at University Malaya should not be dealt with by the university with a police report.

That was a matter of freedom of speech and he was protesting against racism non-violently. The university should have dealt with it in a more suitable way. As much as they want to have discipline, it should be done in a manner that would not curb freedom of expression and political awareness.

This cannot be compared to what that happened in University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) when a student did the Nazi salute as a protest against what he thought was Jewish dominance over the world.

What this ignorant student did is racist and hateful and is not at all the same as what Wong Kan Ye did at UM. If you have to ask why then you are in the same ignorant group.

The incident that happened at UMS is, again, evidence to show that our university students do not have the right exposure, awareness and education when it comes to current social and political issues. This is worrying because the current freedom that the amended act provides could be dangerous due to ignorance.

The civics and ethics studies syllabus that the Education Ministry has decided to be incorporated into schools and universities is a good move. But that is not enough. University administrations and faculties must also play active roles in creating a system that will encourage awareness.

They need to create an environment that is diverse, sensitive and, most importantly, a safe space for discourse. Universities are, in fact, institutions of learning our youth go to learn. And because they are learning, they will be making mistakes.

So the universities must ensure that learning happens in a way that isn’t oppressive, bias or exclusive. Let there be a safe space for students to make mistakes and learn.

Well, to look on the bright side, at least my students are writing articles and producing documentaries that are fluff instead of creating hate speech.

Phew! In the meantime, I will try my best to continue drilling into them more awareness and empathy.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

Get Zan Azlee’s latest book ‘JOURNO-DAD: The chronicles of a journalist who just happens to be a dad!‘ today!


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