BEBAS (Source: The Malaysian Insider)

Both Syahredzan Johan and Woon King Chai look at the ramifications of last Saturday’s infamous ‘flag incident’ at PWTC and ponder where the mahasiswa go from here.

BEBAS (Source: The Malaysian Insider)

Surely you must have heard the latest and hottest news in town: of Adam Adli, an UPSI student and coordinator of Legasi Mahasiswa Progresif (LMP), coming under fire for his actions in a student march which culminated at PWTC on 17 December 2011.

Both of us were not at the scene of the march, so what we know will be based on the news report as well as eyewitness accounts of those who were at the protest.

The march began at Masjid Jamek LRT station and the objective was to a present memorandum at PWTC and at SUHAKAM headquarters. The march itself was without incident, in fact what was noteworthy was the cooperation given by the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) to the protesters, in which they facilitated the march instead of trying to stop it as what usually happens. This is much welcomed, and hopefully this will herald a new approach to policing and future protests be handled similarly.

The police executing their responsibilities professionally by directing traffic and escorting the peaceful street protest of the students. (Source: The Malaysian Insider)

The current controversy is in relation to an incident in PWTC. It would seem that emotions got the better of some of the students at PWTC. A flag, bearing the Prime Minister’s face, was lowered and replaced with the flag of BEBAS. It happened briefly, the original flag was raised back up as quickly as it came down. The incident took place not more than 5 to 10 minutes, and in the words of @KohJL on Twitter:

Never has so much been said about so little. I saw incident and didn’t even think it was newsworthy. I’ve been proven very wrong

But newsworthy it was indeed. The storm of controversy that followed the aftermath of the incident (Flag-gate, anyone? You heard here first, on LB!) is well documented. In fact, the flag incident has overshadowed the march of the mahasiswa so much so that no one seems to be talking about the real issue behind the events that Saturday. It would appear that all we that we took from the march was the Flag-gate incident.

Snap-shot of Adam Adli at the flag pole (Source: online blog)

It is interesting to note how much this incident has garnered divided opinions and perspectives, from within the mahasiswa movement itself and the larger civil society.

Those in support of what Adam did say that it is a flag with the PM’s face and not the Jalur Gemiling. Some say that students did not burn nor trample the flag and merely lowered it. To them, there is nothing wrong with the action – it is a display of dissent and dissatisfaction with the government. Some have even accorded the act with a sense of symbolism, when quite clearly it was something which was not planned at the time did not have the endorsement of the organisers. It was only later that BEBAS did so retrospectively. As such, to say that the act is supposed to a symbolic one sounds like an afterthought and a rather disingenuous one at that.

On the other side of the spectrum, those against what Adam did described it as lacking courtesy at best, and biadap at worst. @ZainHD described it on Twitter (edited for clarity):

Whatever your affiliations, get it right. Don’t step into someone’s PRIVATE PROPERTY & do something that will LIKELY INSULT them. Understand respect.

Some students themselves (within the movement and the same circle) feel that the actions by BEBAS do not represent the entire student segment of the citizenry. Even though they walked with BEBAS on Saturday, or have been ardent supporters of the movement to expand student freedom and university autonomy, they do not agree with the act. They use the analogy of someone coming by your house, your very own private property, and starts messing around with your garden on your property.

Unfortunately, Flag-gate has degenerated into a partisan farce. Those in UMNO are going after Adam and BEBAS. Those in PKR meanwhile have thrown their support behind Adam and BEBAS. It is with this backdrop that the public discourse regarding Flag-gate is taking place.

BEBAS had no control what Adam did and it would appear that the movement did not plan to do what Adam did. So they could not be held responsible for what happened. What we disagree to is the response by BEBAS to the backlash. Instead of taking a step back to re-evaluate the situation and to take in the bigger picture of how political liberalization is an evolutionary process, they have instead opted to go forth with guns blazing.

Make no mistake, we condemn the threats against Adam, which so far includes threats to slap and spit on him. And while we do not agree in principle with Adam’s act, we also think that the backlash is disproportionate to the ‘crime’. It is after all just a flag with the Prime Minister’s face and it was just briefly lowered.

But BEBAS could have seen the bigger picture. They were asked to apologise, and while we do not see a need to do so, they could have instead chosen the more reconciliatory approach. The confrontational stance they have taken and their retrospective endorsement of Adam’s act have ironically damaged the movement and the cause.

Detractors of the cause are now using Flag-gate to discredit the cause. They are using this incident as proof that the mahasiswa should not be given their freedoms. The erstwhile @mpkotabelud tweeted:

Next it’ll be burning, spitting, tearing & stepping on Jalur Gemilang. Why the hell not? It’s freedom of speech & expression what!

The hardliners in UMNO have also found their ammunition against Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, one of the few true progressives in the party who not only talk of it, but also acts on it. We find it sad that Flag-gate is being used against the mahasiswa movement’s benefactor and greatest ally in government.

Dato' Saifuddin Abdullah receiving the memorandum from the students in front of PWTC on Saturday. (Source: online blog)

Time to put things back into perspective. It was a historic march, the culmination of years and years of mahasiswa empowerment. It should symbolise the coming of age of student activism, the day when the mahasiswa showed to the world that they no longer are afraid of the shackles of AUKU, placed upon them by a government fearful of the mahasiswa. The fact that the students marched peacefully to forward their cause for academic freedom without any violence or sabotage from anyone should take precedent over Flag-gate.

The very fact that SUHAKAM, through its commissioner Muhammad Sha’ani Abdullah, received the memorandum is recognition of the inalienable rights of the mahasiswa by the statutory body. Similarly, the fact that the memorandum was received by Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, Deputy Higher Education Minister and stalwart supporter of student political participation, is tacit acknowledgment by the government of the perjuangan.

Lest our views are misconstrued as losing faith in the students’ ability to handle the responsibility of political expression and affiliation, we reiterate a popular quote from Evelynn Beatrice Hall, in her work “Friends of Voltaire”:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Likewise, while we disagree with the methods and tactics employed, we must stand in solidarity together with those who believed in the same cause of advancing student freedom and university autonomy. Flag-gate must not be allowed to be used as an argument to take away from the very same struggle that has been fought for by many generations of students for over four decades.

Those fighting for the cause, regardless of whether it is BEBAS, PKR, PAS, Dato’ Saifuddin, youth wings within Barisan Nasional and civil society must stand together instead of being divided over Flag-gate. The cause is a political cause, but it should not be allowed to become a partisan one.

The cause is far, far bigger than Flag-gate. Let us turn Flag-gate into a positive. BEBAS, while possibly causing damage to the cause, have also put the focus on its movement. Before Nelson Mandela promoted his cause through dialogues, writing, speeches and thereafter reconciliation, he also committed acts of sabotage. It was part and parcel of the struggle. Maybe this is also part and parcel of the perjuangan mahasiswa. And since the nation’s attention is already on this issue, let use it to bring the spotlight onto the cause itself, rather than the incident.

Syah and King Chai are respectively a constitutionalist and a student-rights activist. They would also like to thank ZainHD for his assistance in the completion of this co-authored piece.

King Chai is a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing an MSc. in Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Contrary to popular belief, he is still mindlessly a loyal minion...

Syahredzan Johan adalah seorang peguam muda dan seorang rakan kongsi di sebuah firma guaman di Kuala Lumpur. Dia melihat dirinya sebagai seorang pengkritik politik dan pengulas sosial. Tetapi dia sebenarnya...

4 replies on “Flag-gate and Perjuangan Mahasiswa”

  1. Guys,

    Thank you for articulating your thoughts which I feel resonate with many.

    Many discussions have emanated from this incident. However, I would like to proffer a different perspective – based on the Moyer model (which we use at our UndiMsia! #IdolaDemokrasi Gameshops) – and which may be viewed here:

    Activists play different roles, and there are 4 main ones: the citizen, the rebel, the social change agent and the reformer. Taking one incident and critiquing it from one viewpoint without looking at the larger picture of our different roles and where the student movement was, is and will be is not entirely helpful.

    Clearly, in this case, Adam Adli has decided to play, and played the rebel role. The question should be the use of violence or the absence of it in the tactic. The legality or illegality of the tactic, on most occasions and more particularly in this case, is quite irrelevant. Good examples abound: Gandhi broke laws to make his point and the Bar Council regularly holds rallies without police permits.

    I would humbly suggest that since activism has become a much more interesting subject in this country recently, we would do well to consider different tactics used by activists through the Moyer lens. Evaluate the tactics: useful? effective? impactful? do we do it again? sufficient? etc.

    And then ask what's next on the plate.

    Edmund Bon Tai Soon

  2. Don't understand what's the fuss over the issue. It is just a flag of Najib, not the Malaysian flag. It is important to distinguish the two: While it may be considered unpatriotic to lowered the national flag without any valid reason(s), the same cannot be said of lowering the flag of an government official or elected representative.

    Every citizen has the right to express dissent towards any government official or elected representative, including and I would argue especially towards the prime minister.

    Since Najib became premier in 2009, his administration, except for the usual trio (KJ, Saifuddin Abdullah & Gan Ping Sieu), has consistently demonstrated a lack of political will to reform the UUCA to restore academic freedom and autonomy. If it wasn't for the Court of Appeal's landmark ruling on the UKM4 case in Oct, Najib's cabinet would not even have been pressured to consider scrapping Section 15(5)(a), much less revamping the entire UUCA.

    Against Najib's administration lackluster performance in the area of restoring academic freedom and autonomy, which is crucial to nurture academic excellence and critical thinkers in brain-drained Malaysia, I applaud Adam for lowering the premier's flag! Some may considered it a "rude" wake-up call, but I think it's very timely and courageous. =)

    1. "It is just a flag of Najib, not the Malaysian flag. ". Not just that, you dimwit. He was doing it in other's property, other's territory. Why did most of you "genius" choose to ignore it. It's not just merely about the flag, it's about doing it in other's area. The prettyboy can instead, buy najib flag and do it in his home or his yard or something and most probably no one will make a fuss over it.. Your place, do whatever you want. But when it comes to other's place, stop behaving like a monkey and start showing your "educated" side.

      Stop trying to justify such acts, wrong = wrong. You PR supporters always, always try your best to ignore the main problem, and only pointing out the small ones and said "oh it's not that big".

      Again, it's not just the flag, it's being rude for doing it in other's area. Stop being selective, and start being fair

      Inb4 "but najib/bn/rosmah/umno etc etc". Don't derail the topic by started attacking something else, that's how most pr fags works. And oh yeah, "cow/lembu" etc² as well lulz.

      1. Personally, I think it says too much about the uncomfortably fervid political climate in our country that a mere act of discourtesy can generate so much heat. What he did was wrong, yes; but the point is, do we need to get so worked up about it? Worst things have been perpetrated in this country; for goodness sake; with the offenders getting less than what this poor guy faces now.

        So Najib is the Prime Minister; and deserves a modicum of respect. But the last time I checked, he is a human being just like the rest of us. All political figures in mature democracies face public reprimand as a natural, everyday fact of life. Come to think of it, everyone does. So Mr. Najib'll just have to learn to live with it.

        And if we were examining the last comment with a clear mind, it should be obvious that her main point was: the flag-gate incident isn't AS important as the cause behind the whole event (student rights), so rage however you want; just don't lose focus and forget about it.

        In the meantime, sir, do take a breather and simmer down. Your comment is infringing on personal attacks; and this is platform for discussion, not a schoolyard tussle.

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