Hundreds of students yesterday gathered to protest against the suspension of Abdul Aziz Bari, the vocal constitutional law professor with the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM).
Student leaders and their supporters, who gathered at the compound of the university’s mosque here, condemned the suspension as a “tyrannical” move and a “blatant violation” of “academic freedom”.
Several students leaders were pulled away by police and university security personnel as they try to hand a memorandum of protest to the university’s authorities.
“We detest the exploitation of institutions of higher learning to serve the interest of the power-that- be. Revoke Aziz’s suspension,” shouted Ahmad Syukri Abdul Razab of the students group SMM.
The students chanted “long live Aziz” and carried placards with “solidarity with Aziz” written on them.
Also present were leaders from opposition parties including PKR vice-presidents Tian Chua and Nurul Izzah Anwar.
Government fears education autonomy
Aziz was suspended after he described the decree made by the Sultan of Selangor following the raid by the Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) on a church in Damansara recently as “unprecedented and inconsistent”.
The sultan had said that no one shall be penalised because there was insufficient evidence to prove proselytising by Christians during the raid although he maintained that conversion attempts are “real”.
The Umno-owned media were quick to pounce on Aziz, describing his statement as “treacherous” in what is seen as a retaliation against the political scientist’s constant criticism against the ruling party.
Speaking to FMT later, Ahmad Syukri said Aziz’s suspension was a clear signal of the government’s fear of “autonomy” in the academic sphere although it has distanced itself from IIUM’s action.
Deputy Higher Education Minister Saifuddin Abdullah had said the action against the professor was internal and not a result of government interference, but SMM and opposition leaders believe otherwise.
“What Aziz said (about the decree) was academic. It was part of an intellectual discourse. You can have a different opinion but suspension is not the way. You should counter his argument through discourse,” said Ahmad Syukri.
He added that intellectuals should be allowed to debate on “sensitive” issues, including the position of the monarch. “It’s part of academic freedom… a healthy debate to create intellectual debate,” he said.
Tarnishing Najib’s reform image
Malaysia’s universities are fast dropping in the global ranking. Race-based quotas, instead of merits-based admission and political interference, have been cited as the cause for the decline in quality.
Nurul Izzah told FMT that Aziz’s suspension reminded her of her own ordeal more than a decade ago when she was refused admission (to university) due to “political considerations”.
At the time of her application, Nurul Izzah, the Lembah Pantai MP, is the daughter of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim who was sacked as the deputy prime minister after a fall-out with then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“Thirteen years on, the same thing is happening to Aziz. In the face of transformation, you want to allow and accord universities the freedom they deserve,” she said in a critical reference to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s reform measures.
Opposition leaders and observers believe Najib’s transformation credentials have been tarnished by various violations of basic rights and the absence of real institutional reforms