Malaysia: Occupy Dataran Merdeka and Education Protests

The April 28 Bersih 3.0 sit-down protest is expected to be the major political event of the month in Malaysia but students and Occupy activists have already put forward their demands ahead of time.

Early this month, hundreds of students marched in the streets demanding the abolition of the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN) – Malaysian student loan scheme – which students criticized as an exploitative and anti-poor commercialization scheme. Instead of loans with high interest rates, they wanted free education.

Anil Netto explains the rationale of the protest:

High study loans are contributing to mounting household debt in the country. The students are insisting that higher education should be free. In a sense, the students’ protest is a critique of the neoliberal approach of curbing government spending on essential services like education and health care and getting users (students and patients) to bear the financial burden.

PTPTN study loans were introduced in 1997 following moves to ‘corporatise’ institutions of tertiary education in the country. This has seen the gradual removal of subsidies in higher education, thus shifting the burden of financing higher education from the government to the students/public.

Woon King Chai disagrees with the demand to abolish the loan scheme but recognizes some of the negative impact of the program:

Personally, I disagree with dismantling the fund entirely simply because that is not the only solution available. However, I acknowledge that there are students who are unable to afford a salary high enough to pay off their loans upon graduation, especially in today’s competitive job market.

After a brief discussion with my housemates and further on with some friends and colleagues, one logical and actually practical solution that the government can take is to actually reduce the interest rate and administrative fees further, so that the amount that the students would have to pay would be lesser (and thus, hopefully less burdensome, especially with a few thousands shaved off the loan). Aside from that, the government can also propose to make the repayment scheme a lot more lax and less strenuous to the new graduates, by reducing the rate of increasing progression for monthly minimum amount to repay the loans.

One of the popular slogans in the Occupy Dataran. Photo from The People's Parliament

Occupy Dataran Merdeka

After the rally of students, youth activists launched the Occupy Dataran Merdeka movement. The Occupy goals are not limited to student issues and the campaign initiators are not just youth activists. Occupy Dataran supports the right of students to air their demands through the use of public space:

Why is Occupy Dataran part of the encampment? Occupy Dataran is an independent and autonomous grassroots initiative to reclaim Dataran Merdeka as an open and democratic space for people to gather, discuss and explore the true meaning of democracy beyond the representative system, to redefine democratic participation beyond the ballot box, and to imagine a new political culture beyond race, ideology and political affiliation. We have decided to be a part of this encampment because we believe in reclaiming public space and that the student movement, like any other, has the right to use this space for their cause.

Occupy Dataran maintains that our presence at Dataran Merdeka is fully consistent with Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, where the people’s freedom to assemble peacefully is provided for and protected. Our presence has been peaceful and our conduct embodies the spirit of nonviolence.

As such, the actions taken by DBKL and the officers over the course of the last 10 days, constitute serious violations of the fundamental freedoms belonging to all Malaysians, including members of Occupy Dataran, as enshrined in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.

Emma & Wai Yeng clarifies that the Occupy Dataran group is distinct from the anti-PTPTN student protesters:

…the campers have been erroneously lumped by the media and public in general into one group. There are in fact two very distinct factions. The first is the original #OccupyDataran group – they call themselves a leaderless group

Sharing space with #OccupyDataran are the students – known by no other name, they gathered to protest PTPTN, and what they believe is a flawed system of government-assisted student funding

The People's Parliament praises the campers:

Nightly, they hold their assemblies, deciding matters based on consensus, allowing for the fullest participation by anyone who will stand up to share his or her thoughts on the matter under discussion.

Last Sunday noon, I had the pleasure of watching these young Malaysians negotiate calmly and politely with DBKL officers who wanted them to vacate the site they were occupying.

Luka Kita reviews the major demands of the campers:

While other participants have articulated that they do not necessarily want to abolish PTPTN but still support the occupy action for other reasons closely linked to the education system. These reasons include the conditions of the current PTPTN scheme and the current system of preferential treatment for bumiputeras (Malays and non-Muslim indigenous populations)

While there does seem to be a lot of focus on education issues, other protestors have articulated their reasons for occupation in broader concepts of democracy and class struggle

From the start, the police has described the Occupy activities as illegal but the protesters have remained defiant.

Campers at Occupy Dataran. Photo from The People's Parliament

Twitter reactions

Using the hashtags #mansuhPTPTN and #occupydataran, here are some reactions on Twitter:

@inbarajs Don't fight for #mansuhPTPTN just bcos ur too cheapskate to pay back the loan. Free education is a different cause altogether

@kevinkoosk Young people at #occupydataran should read books next door at the Kuala Lumpur Library. Dont waste time

@karrotgold #OccupyDataran is to fight for free education? When will these students understand that nothing is free in this world?

1 comment

  • mo

    ★ It’s a global struggle ★

    People worldwide are struggling against the increasing commercialisation of education and fighting for free emancipatory education.

    Massive staff cuts, budget cuts, privatisation, de-democratisation within schools and universities, tuition fees hike, an increasing pressure to perform, and increasing influences of ‘private economic actors’ on teaching and research – it’s the same shit everywhere!

    To resist these effects from the current dominating economic system and fight for alternatives together I believe it is time to call for a first coordinated strike at educational institutions across the world. Furthermore such an action would encourage a desperately needed public discussion on the actual purpose of education for the individual as well as society at large. It could also point out the global dimension of the struggle and therefore put greater emphasis on the actual root of the problems we are all experiencing.

    There is a basis for discussion being circulated that suggests to call for a GLOBAL EDUCATION STRIKE on November 19th 2012:

    ★ Why the 19th of November? ★

    There are two main reasons:

    * As of previous practices, student groups worldwide arranged for actions on the 17th of November to mark it as “International Students’ Day”. Since November 17th falls on a Saturday this year, November 19th could be an alternative date to focus on.
    * November happens to be a month most suitable for students/teachers worldwide to gather for actions (considering that semester breaks are different around the world).

    To discuss this idea and the next steps to take together, all identifying and interested with the struggle are invited to participate in a global chat meeting on the 28th of April (Saturday): +

    ~ one world – one struggle ~

    in solidarity from marburg,

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