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Could Malaysia's New Wave of Bold Student Activists Be on the Verge of an Uprising?

Progressive forces are growing impatient with the government's increasingly desperate cling to power.

by Scott Oliver
20 February 2015, 9:00pm

Adam Adli (left) with a colleague from the activist collective Universiti Bangsar Utama. Photo by Scott Oliver

Clutching a copy of Molotov Cocktail, the collection of political essays he published last year, 25-year-old law undergraduate Adam Adli sweeps away a mop of hair and skips across the road to join the student protesters milling about outside the University of Malaya. Watched on one side by campus security and on the other by not-so-secret secret police, they've gathered in support of the so-called "UM8," an octet of students recently disciplined by university authorities.

Their misdemeanor was simply to invite Anwar Ibrahim—leader of the opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat) and a UM alumnus—to give a talk on campus, forbidden under Malaysia's University and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which bars students from being members of—or even expressing support or opposition to—political parties. Two of the UM8 were suspended from study—Fahmi Zainol being forced to pay back twice the amount of his scholarship (around $30,000)—while seven received fines and warnings about their conduct.

Meanwhile, last week Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to five years in prison for "sodomy" (illegal in predominantly Muslim Malaysia), despite originally being acquitted by the High Court. He had previously been imprisoned for six years for the same offense, later overturned by the Supreme Court. Amnesty called it a "deplorable judgement," while Human Rights Watch, expressing little doubt the conviction was politically motivated, called it "a travesty of justice."

If, as Marx suggested, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, then the absurd, this Kafkaesque imprisonment of Anwar—the most high-profile opponent of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that's ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957—might light the touch paper in a country where progressive forces grow ever more impatient with the government's increasingly desperate and capricious cling to power.

"He's the only person ever to be convicted of sodomy," says Adli, laughing grimly at the real perversity of it all.

Anwar Ibrahim, founder and leader of the Malaysian opposition coalition. Photo by Didiz via WikiMedia Commons

Quietly spoken and easygoing, Adli is perhaps an unlikely candidate to speak (alongside activists and opposition politicians twice his age) to the student throng encamped outside the country's most prestigious seat of learning. However, since himself being sentenced to 12 months in prison last May (pending an appeal) under Malaysia's notoriously draconian Sedition Act, he has become the poster boy for an emerging, increasingly vocal, increasingly defiant generation of student activists. His case even prompted a Facebook group, "We Are All Adam Adli," a self-conscious echo of the "We Are All Khaled Said" page that helped spark Egypt's January 25 Revolution.

A hold-over from the British colonial era, the Sedition Act criminalizes anything that "would bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any government." Vaguely defined and arbitrarily applied, it's something of a Swiss army knife in the government's formidable tool-belt of repression, a law that has been repeatedly used to stifle freedom of expression and crack down on dissent, ultimately fomenting the (increasingly rickety) culture of compliant, docile self-censorship that has permeated the nation's political life.

However, in the lead-up to May 2013's general election, Anwar's nemesis, Prime Minister Najib Razak—leader of UMNO (United Malays National Organization), the dominant party in Barisan Nasional (BN)—made noises about repealing the act. Instead, after a victory gained in controversial circumstances—for the first time, BN received less than 50 percent of the popular vote, yet still took 60 percent of parliamentary seats—Razak backtracked on his pledge, actually strengthening the law and placing the country's already scanty civil liberties in something of a choke-hold (there have been 20 sedition convictions in the last two years, compared to two over the previous four). Indeed, Amnesty International, in their most recent report to the UN for the Universal Human Rights Index, outlined "concerns with regard to the death penalty; freedom of expression, association, and assembly; arbitrary arrest and detention; unlawful killings by security forces, torture, ill-treatment, and deaths in custody; exploitation of migrants; and nonrecognition of refugees." To this can be added judicial independence.

Predictably, prosecution under the Sedition Act is not required to prove intent. Thus, Adli's "crime" was simply to publicly question the legitimacy of the 2013 election results (this while working for an NGO called Bersih, which campaigns for clean and fair elections) and to call for the people to take to the streets in protest.

Appropriately for someone aspiring to shake the country from its political culture of deferential passivity, he was using social media during the trial to keep supporters updated, at one point posting a courtroom selfie to Instagram with the status: "keep calm and be seditious."

Adam Adli. Photo by Scott Oliver

It wasn't the first time Adli—who has been arrested more times than he can remember—had pricked the skin of the political establishment. In 2011, having burnt the UMNO flag at a protest outside the party's headquarters and been beaten for his trouble, he went into hiding after learning that party thugs were circulating his picture and phone number online in a bid to root him out. Ensconced for ten days in a rural hideout, he was fed by an old lady who recalled the student demonstrations that were once a regular part of young Malaysia's political life. It was an epiphany: "She said in the 1970s it was the students who made people believe things could change, and that I'd given her hope. That's when I realized people are pissed off with the government and we needed more people doing crazy stuff so that they would become afraid of us."

So what happened to that student radicalism? Meredith Weiss, in Student Activism in Malaysia, questions the conventional wisdom that Malaysia's students have become apathetic: "This apparent disinterest is not inevitable or natural, but... the outcome of a sustained project of pacification and depoliticization by a moderately illiberal, ambitiously developmental state," she writes.

That pacification is engendered in a number of ways.

Most insidiously, the Malaysian government operates an explicitly racial policy of affirmative action for ethnic Malays and indigenous tribes—the so-called bumiputra (67 percent of the population)—for whom there is preferential access to higher education and new housing, as well as favorable business rates and bank charges. It is brazenly discriminatory, fostering widespread resentment and complacency, depending on your racial category. And with bumiputra classification conditional upon being Muslim, there is also a government ministry—the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim)—that monitors religious observance in Malays, prosecuting in special Shari'a courts. In the wake of a fatwa being issued to the Sisters in Islam—a group promoting rights of women in Islam—the deputy Prime Minister recently suggested that Malaysia's Islamic character was under threat from the discourse of human rights, which he sees as a façade to push through a liberal, secularist agenda.

Then there's the oppressive Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act, which allows for 28-day detention without trial, the first 48 hours of which can be incommunicado. It may not quite be Saudi Arabia, yet this is still a conservative, thin-skinned, paranoid regime apt to arrest anyone who speaks out against the systematic abuses—be they cartoonists, bloggers, politicians, academics, activists, lawyers, or students. For the latter, those "depoliticised" and "pacified" students, there's the double-pincer of the sedition dragnet and UUCA.

Student protesters demonstrating in solidarity with UM8. Photo by Seth Akmal

Thus, Adli's speech in solidarity with UM8—alongside Anwar's fellow opposition coalition party leader Lim Kit Siang and his deputy Teresa Kok (charged with sedition after a satirical video that allegedly mocked Islam), as well as playwright Hishamuddin Rais (recently fined around $1,500 for sedition)—three times repeats the view of esteemed law professor Dr. Azmi Sharom (currently awaiting trial for sedition): The brightest and best among us are also the most oppressed. With campus curfews, no student union, a tortuous application procedure even to book a room (Anwar's UM talk was held in darkness, after authorities cut off the electricity), even having to wear ties to lectures—it's hardly an atmosphere in which an enquiring, free-thinking mindset can flourish.

Adli has retained his humor amid the absurdity, yet his determination is steadfast: "We can always pull another Ukraine, another Egypt. We know that with the resources we have, bringing down the government is quite easy. But to rebuild will be hard. We don't want to leave a vacuum. If Plan A—electoral reform—doesn't go well, we can always change to Plan B."

Fighting talk, maybe, yet this is no wild-eyed revolutionary grandstanding. There is a reformist caution, a willingness to play the long game—"we just want to open up a more democratic space"—and, equally, a sense that the time is ripe to drag the more reticent sympathizers away from the keyboards and out onto the streets.

Volunteers at the soup kitchen. Photo by Scott Oliver

Adli's courage and tenacity have made him one of the most prominent student voices in a growing tide of frustration with the sham democracy, archaic laws, and autocratic whimsy of a de facto one-party state, yet this is no ego-trip. Indeed, from a base that's something between an oversized student house and a commune, Adli is part of an activist collective engaged in far more humble and mundane activities—offering free tuition to young and old; running the online Radio Bangsar, where philosophy discussions sit alongside homegrown Malaysian punk; and operating a soup kitchen taken out to Kuala Lumpur's neglected homeless each weekend—filling in where the state is unable or unwilling to provide.

While the hypermodern Kuala Lumpur skyline suggests a country that's all grown up, in reality the sci-fi skyscrapers are merely the uncertain adolescent posturing of someone too keen to project self-assurance, too sensitive to the slightest criticism. The fact is that Adam Adli is not the sort of person that a country truly sure of itself would need to hound and harass. Nor, for that matter, is Anwar Ibrahim. But then, it was always this way with repressive regimes: the more heavy-handed they get in trying to establish orderly obedience, the more they're inclined to see sedition everywhere—in a flippant tweet, an insufficiently deferential glare, a t-shirt.

If Malaysia's students are all Adam Adli, then his appeal decision, like the Anwar verdict, might nudge the country closer to a tipping point. Lose, and he could spend up to three years in prison; win, and it might show that the country is prepared to tap the potential of its young rather than spending all its energy preserving the status quo.

Adli himself is not optimistic—indeed, his lawyer was recently arrested (yep, for sedition) in his chambers by 20 police—but he remains philosophical, and unshakeable in his convictions. "Going to jail's maybe not a bad thing for me. I've got to the stage where I think them putting me in jail will help the struggle a lot. People will see more injustice in this country, and see the true nature of our government."

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