It is with a heavy heart that I write this open letter to you. I have exhausted all other means of communication with you, from face-to-face conversation, to letters to the media and hence have resorted to writing this open letter. Having completed my studies here in UM, I have nothing to gain by sticking my nose into these issues. This is written for the sake of the students, the name of the college and the maruah of the university.
In the month of July 2007, I stepped into 6th Residential College with a heart filled with excitement and awe as I began life as a medical student. I was inspired by the orientation facilitators and seniors in college and soon made the college my second home. Our batch (MBBS 2007/2012) were keen in helping and organizing college events. During my second year, Satpal and Simon (both my coursemates) organized Expo Ibnu Sina and the Creative Arts Week, probably two of the biggest events the college has in the last five years. I vividly remember staying up till 5am on one of the mornings in preparation for the expo.
We were enthusiastic and excited about student activities simply because it was fun to do so. It was through the organization of these activities that we learnt leadership and management skills. Conflicts and disagreements taught us the importance of teamwork and accountability.
After moving to Klang hostel for a year, we came back to 6th college for our final two years of study. I was elected as student committee member (JTK – Jawatankuasa Tindakan Kolej) of the faculty together with a few other coursemates. Being the keen students that we were, we wanted our year’s committee to be different. We wanted the JTK to be seen as a group of students that the residents could respect and look up to, to be role models for them.
My first contact with you left me with the impression that you were very open to students’ suggestions and ideas. You were very encouraging with informal events in the college or any other ideas that the JTK brought up.
However this was short lived as you started implementing new rules without the knowledge of the JTK. The shorts ruling, for instance was put into place without any discussion with us. Shorts or skirts were required to cover the entire knee cap and exposing half a knee cap was also considered an offence. On one recent occasion, you spotted a girl wearing shorts and called her “naked”.
Students leaving the college in above-knee shorts were told to wrap their legs with “kain” and remove the “kain” after leaving the compound of the college. What kind of mindset are we creating by enforcing such rules? The annual dinner of the college was around the corner when students were been told to adhere to the dress code of “no cleavage, no back, no shoulders and no knees visible”. Failure to do so would result in “action being taken” and expulsion if deemed necessary. Does that mean that sleeveless dresses are inappropriate at a hotel dinner?
The dress code issue was obviously not a problem for the Muslim students (although they do not necessarily agree with it). However it has been a cause of disharmony and racial tension as the non-Muslim residents subconsciously feel that the administration is favouring the Muslim students in this area, although the reason given is “for formality and to be proper”. In the words of a senior UM administration official, “We are now creating future citizens that are more concerned about form over substance”.
Besides that, spot checks were done before proper guidelines were set up. The administration confiscated items that were not on the prohibited items list in the rulebook and meted out fines as they wished. One particular room was said to have been “messy” and the owner fined RM50. This is absurd and I believe that residents have the responsibility to leave the room clean and tidy after checking out of college, and that they should not be punished for how they arrange their belongings in the room during their stay there.
There was an incident where a student accidentally dropped a piece of paper containing his name and telephone number. You called him up and reprimanded him, summoning him to your office. He was found to be guilty of littering and fined RM50 and only reduced to RM20 after pleading with you. To punish someone for one piece of paper with the person’s name is really ridiculous.
Some residents were alleged to have been smoking in the rooms and were caught. Without a first warning, you expelled them from the college, although the rule book at that time only indicated a monetary fine. I am not condoning smoking, but rational use of authority and power.
A female resident was moving belongings into her room and solicited the help of a male friend. She too was caught and expelled from the college without a warning. Her parents drove down from another state but you refused to meet them, saying that the case had already been settled.
Besides the rules, the admin-resident communication fell apart. Residents became wary of anyone of the administration. Speculations of misuse of college funds were rife among the students. One student lost about RM4000 worth of belongings from her room but did not bother to report to the office. Her words were, “Prof June wouldn’t care”.
A dialogue was held in October 2011, attended by yourself, Prof Rohana (Deputy Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Alumni) and Prof Hamimah (Undergraduate Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Medicine). About 400 students turned up, a significant number for our college. We were thrilled to finally get a chance to air our views. Many issues were brought up and I personally presented an online survey regarding student welfare, college administration and so on, which had responses from nearly 400 residents. From the time of the dialogue till the dissolution of the JTK, there was no effort taken to meet with the JTK regarding the issues or the result of the survey. I have attached the survey to this letter.
A few weeks ago, a banner was found to be hanging in the dining hall with the words “Time to go, Prof June” written on it. A JTK member currently staying in college snapped a picture and posted it on facebook. After some investigations, his room and some others were ransacked without reason. No justification was given to them and their belongings were turned upside down. Another JTK member also had his phone taken from him to look through the contents of his phone, which is a direct invasion of someone’s privacy. The explanation given to him was that living in college means that you don’t have much privacy. Does that mean that the administration can, at any time, look through personal belongings of students without prior justification?
Over the span of the last two years, a total of ten wardens have left and have been replaced by new ones. That is an extremely high turnover rate. I am not at liberty to quote names, but many of them have left because of differences with you and the inability to work together. On more than one occasion, wardens were terminated and asked to leave without being given a grace period. One of them even had no choice but to sleep in the department for two weeks while arranging accommodation elsewhere. This is highly inappropriate and unprofessional.
Those that are currently in place are all new and inexperienced in the affairs and the running of a residential college. This lack of experienced wardens has also contributed to the current state of affairs in the college.
Klang hostel accommodation
The hostel in Klang was built for the MBBS phase IIIa students. However, you have recently implemented a new ruling that selects the students based on their participation in college activities. Those that do not obtain a place are then required to appeal and attend an interview to give reasons as to why they deserve a place. This is very unsafe for students that end up staying outside the hospital grounds. There is no reason why students need to appeal for a place in a hostel that was built specifically for them.
One of your reasons for the appeals was to “train residents to write convincing appeal letters”. This is a ludicrous reason and does not justify such measures.
Accommodation for clinical year students
Recently, about 40 final year medical students were denied a place in the college. The sign outside the college proudly reads “clinical students hostel”. Clinical students ever since the 1970s (maybe earlier) have been living there. It is imperative that all clinical year students be placed in 6th college, without the need for appeals, interviews and unnecessary paperwork.
During my term as a JTK member, distrust was bred between the JTK and the students as the JTK were powerless to do anything, despite being the students’ voice. We, the JTK became mere messengers and lost our function as the voice of the students. We became a barrier to the field of questions directed at you.
There was no proper handover from the previous to the current JTK. The lack of transition is extremely unhealthy for any organization, whether corporate or student. The current JTK have been handpicked by you without prior discussions with the previous JTK. We were final year students, and would have been able to give valuable input into the selection of the new JTK, ensuring that mature and capable students were elected. But you chose not to take our views into consideration.
Empowerment and ethos
University rankings are important and to a certain extent, reflect the quality of the institution. However, a holistic tertiary education is so much more than just research papers, peer reviews and figures on a graph. Students have come to the university not only to graduate with a degree, but also to gain the leadership and interpersonal skills necessary for the working world, to be encouraged and empowered, not be put down, disenfranchised and ordered around.
There is a great urgency and need to reinstate the students, to actively involve us in the running of the university, and instill a true sense of ownership of the academic institution that we are in. The Student Empowerment and Research Unit (SERU) was established for that very purpose.
Your style of leadership over 6th residential college has done the complete opposite. Over the last two years, you used the UM statute saying that the principal has the authority to implement any ruling, whether verbal or written, at any time. You used expulsion as a threat towards any resident that dared to break the rule. During JTK meetings, you made it clear that you had the last say in all matters and that discussion was futile. Multiple emails were written to you personally over many issues but were met by silence.
The ethos of the college has been turned into a place where students are governed by rules and fines. As the principal, you are meant to be someone who is respected and looked up to, but have become someone that people shy away from.
The 6th college that I remember from my early years in UM is but a memory. The comments about 6th college on facebook are often laced with vulgarities and foul language. This is very saddening, for one who has fond memories of the college.
The administration needs to undergo transformation. We need to bring transparency back into the administration of the college. Explain and clarify all important decisions made by the college to the residents.
The previous JTK should always be consulted in the selection of new JTK members. After all, we know our own peers way better than the administration do. The JTK should also be consulted in all important decision making processes, not told what to do after decisions have been made.
I believe that the leadership of the college needs to undergo a transformation too. With all due respect, I urge you to actively change your style of administration, or step down as principal of the college.
You may decline and choose to maintain status quo. But be mindful that this will only result in the propagation of negativity among students, further suppression of student empowerment and eventual decline of the maruah of the nation’s premier university.
Towards true student empowerment,
Ismail bin Saudi (former president)
Satpal Singh Charl (former vice president 1)
Natasha Mohd Noh (former vice president 2)
Farid Hakim Saibun
Cheng Wern Loong
Tobias Javan Yangus