The Malaysian Mould of Student Activism in the UK & Ireland

“Are we actually making a difference?”

I constantly find myself asking this question a lot before I sleep at night throughout my third year in university. As the Chairperson of UKEC, the student representative council of 16,000 Malaysian students in the UK & Ireland, my team and I have been heavily involved in the world of student activism – advocating for crucial reforms in national policies whilst looking out for the best interest of Malaysian students abroad. 

Student activism has definitely grown and matured ever since the pre-historic days of Malaysia. The pinnacle of student activism was in the 1960s, but it did not bloom in Malaysia until the early 70s. This however was short-lived as the Barisan National government back then legislated the AUKU 1971 act in parliament which halted any great socio-political student movements and further delegitimised new subversive ideas, which are important for our democracy to grow. Intimidation of prosecution by the AUKU act has then witnessed student movements focusing on ‘softer’ issues rather than controversial ones.

In the UK-Malaysia student activism landscape, the need for a centralised student body came about in the early 90s when the Malaysian student population burgeoned drastically at the time as more sponsorship bodies and private students opt for tertiary education here. The United Kingdom and Eire Council (UKEC) was formed in 1995 as the umbrella body comprising of the 76 Malaysian Societies (MSocs) across different universities in the UK + Ireland and an elected Executive council spearheading the administration of the movement.

Ever since then, more niche student societies like:

  • Young Malaysian Engineers [YME]
  • iCube
  • Malaysia Accounting and Finance Society [MACFIS]
  • The Kalsom Movement
  • The Charisma Movement
  • Malaysian Medics International United Kingdom [MMI UK]

…have flourished and grown over the past two decades. To date, there are more than 100 Malaysian student societies that are registered with Education Malaysia London, the official authoritative body attached to the Malaysia High Commission London. Whilst many lament the over-crowded platforms available for Malaysian students abroad, I personally see this as a symbol of mature student activism – one that is able to feed every area of interest and focus on a broad spectrum of national issues. This is the unique mould of student activism that one can experience only by being a Malaysian student in the UK and Ireland. 

Undeniably, one should also branch out and explore university clubs and societies to get the full ‘UK’ experience and gain a more holistic outlook in life. It will be such a waste if one neglects this part of their student life and stay only within the Malaysian community. However, it does not mean that both of these experiences cannot coexist in harmony. 

My Take on This Dilemma?

Get involved in both! Plan out your 3-4 years of undergraduate studies carefully so that you can make the most out of it. It is definitely not impossible for you to do both. Whilst the UK university experience helps you to be more open-minded on how things are done, the Malaysian student activism helps you to stay rooted to grassroot issues so that we can return home and contribute to the development of our nation. This then brings back the question I asked at the beginning of this article:

“Are we actually making a difference?”

UKEC itself in the past few years have championed several pertinent issues ranging from tertiary educational policies to socio-political ones as shown below:

  • The repeal of the AUKU 1971 act
  • Banning political appointments in tertiary education bodies
  • Supporting the Undi18 Movement to lower the voting age
  • Publish parliamentary attendance to increase transparency and accountability
  • Reinstate the abolished critical allowance (Bayaran Insentif Perkhidmatan Kritikal) for government servants
  • Reconsider quarantine cost for Malaysian Students during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Decriminalising suicide in Malaysia

There has also been a few UKEC alumni who are at the forefront of politics curating and drafting actual policies for our countries. Unlike the popular false notion that UKEC is a place for Malay conservative elitists, we produce politicians from both ends of the spectrum. The notable ones that you might recognize are Rafizi Ramli and Shahril Hamdan but there are many others working behind the curtains in ministries and government agencies. One thing that they have all in common when I interviewed them last summer is that they attribute their intellectual capability, work ethic and patriotism to their student days in UKEC. It is a place where they started to groom themselves in preparation to serve the country and contribute to the nation building agenda us students often speak about at conferences and summits.

In a nutshell, yes, the student activism landscape abroad is not only making a difference, but one that is impactful and meaningful for our country. Change has to begin somewhere. So why not take your first step today towards building a better Malaysia and join a student society?

Let the spirit of student activism live on and Happy Malaysia Day everyone!

About the Author

Haris Danial is an Imperial boy by day, Batman by night. He fight injustice through student activism.

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