Malaysian institutions of higher learning should start behaving like world-class universities, says Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, following Universiti of Malaya‘s (UM) refusal to allow the prominent lawyer to speak at its law convention last week.
Claiming it was a ridiculous move by the university, the former Bersih co-chair said UM was setting a bad example by curtailing the rights of students and clamping down on academic freedom.
“This has to stop. We cannot have narrow-minded people up there telling us this. Public institutions of higher learning should start behaving like world-class universities,” she told The Malaysian Insider.
Ambiga, who is the former Bar Council president, was scheduled to speak at the Law Faculty’s Law Career Convention on Public Interest Litigation on March 29.
A student representative said an official letter was sent to the university’s deputy vice-chancellor of Student Affairs to seek permission for Ambiga to deliver the lecture on March 25.
The university had initially agreed on condition that there should also be a pro-establishment speaker at the convention to make it more balanced.
However, the approval was retracted with the excuse that Ambiga’s lecture was not part of the programme, which was organised by the UM Law Society.
A group of UM students handed a memorandum to Pakatan Rakyat (PR) MPs yesterday to protest the university’s decision and its attempt to violate their rights.
Student group Progressive University Malaya president Richtyne Yusuf said the university seemed to be practising double standards when it came to speakers allowed to deliver lectures.
“When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was invited to give a lecture, there were no issue. But when Ambiga was invited, the seminar was cancelled. This seems unfair,” he said.
Ambiga praised the students who stood up against the university’s move, noting that it shows that there is still “hope in the country”.
“I was pleasantly surprised that the students are not letting this go. I feel encouraged by what they are doing now, that they will not let their right to academic freedom be taken away.
“I am happy that they realise the world is at their feet,” said the lawyer.
Ambiga said she has not faced such a situation before but was told that students were afraid of inviting her for fear of getting into trouble with university officials.
“I learnt that previously, students had wanted to invite me to speak but backed down because they knew they will run into trouble with the university.
“This shows that they are practising self-censorship and this is wrong,” she said.
Meanwhile, Association for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham) chairman, Datuk Kuthubul Zaman, also took a swipe at UM, saying the university should have considered Ambiga’s vast experience as a top lawyer than her “presumed political inclination”.
“Proham calls on the university to reconsider their decision and to allow Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan to address the law students on Public Interest Litigation. It is a clear violation of the students’ rights and a contravention of a universal human right to freedom of speech and expression.
“Ambiga herself had personally appeared as counsel in the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Federal Court on issues concerning public interest. Her valuable experience is an asset for her to share with the law students. In the circumstances, the decision by the university in refusing her to address the law students is puzzling,” he added in a statement.
The Malaysian Insider sent emails and made telephone calls to the offices of the university vice-chancellor Professor Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin and the Dean of the Law Faculty, Associate Professor Dr Johan Shamsuddin Sabaruddin, but they have not responded at press time.