08-08-2010 06:51

Undergrads in politics -- Yes or No?

A FORMER vice-chancellor is against it; a deputy minister is all for it. The issue: should undergraduates be allowed to take active part in national politics? The two had an open debate on Wednesday night on national television.

The former VC is Tan Sri Ibrahim Abu Shah of UiTM while the other is Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah. And what a duel it was. Both had strong views and did not mince their words as they argued their way through.

University students have been barred from active partisan politics for many years. In the 1970s, student leaders, including those who are now very much part of the establishment, led protests against the government in and outside campuses.

There were many reasons for this. Pressing socio-political and economic problems of the day were some of them. Quite a number of the student leaders and their followers were taken in as government guests under the Internal Security Act.

They have since been released, of course, and a number have gone on to pursue their political careers, sought and even held high offices in the national administration.

But student lives changed after that. Laws were passed restricting undergraduates from actively pursuing a political career as long as they were in campus.

The order was out -- focus on your studies!

But really, you can't put a total stop to students being interested in national politics. National politics is part of everyday life after all. We do know that many students, in their own way, lean towards one political party or the other.

They may not be card-carrying members but they work behind the scenes, giving whatever assistance and input to the party of choice.

It is also a fact that many would return to their kampung and hometowns and advise or influence their parents, siblings, friends and relatives on how to cast their votes.

Saifuddin said he was all for undergraduates taking part in partisan politics. He was of the opinion that in a participatory democracy, the students had a right to be active in politics.

Not to mention that many students were already of voting age, including graduate students who had gone back to campus to pursue their second or third degrees.

The deputy minister, himself a former university lecturer, also believes that undergraduates are already exposed to partisan politics.

Allowing them to be active politically was part of the maturing process of national politics, he said.

Ibrahim, however, expressed concern about undergraduates being allowed to be active politically. He cautioned that this might not necessarily be productive.

He was of the opinion that they could be distracted from their studies but the real concern was that campuses would be a hot hunting ground for political parties.

The changing political landscape is making Ibrahim wary of such a move. While he may have strong reasons for disapproving such a move, the fact is also true that university students are a maturing lot and can make their choices wisely.

I suppose political parties will have to tread carefully and responsibly when entering campuses for their outreach programme and membership drive. The students are not going to be easily convinced by empty promises or rhetoric.

On the world stage, university students have been made aware of their political responsibilities. Their early involvement helps prepare them for national leadership, should they be so inclined.

Obviously, a decision on whether or not to allow undergraduates to be politically active will only be made after considering the pros and cons. If Saifuddin has his way, this ought to be allowed. The sooner, the better.

The writer is also a blogger at He can be reached at



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