Prime Minister David Cameron and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak met for a prestigious event held at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) in Semenyih last Thursday. The event was organised to discuss the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), an initiative launched by Mr. Najib, a Nottingham alumnus himself. A group of 80 UNMC students were invited to attend the discussion and Question and Answer session. However, it was later discovered that only selected students were allowed to ask questions or be there at all.
In an attempt to avoid a discussion on UK tuition fees, only exchange students amongst the British were officially permitted into the event and other university students were asked to refrain from mentioning the topic of tuition fees.
Rebecca McKeown, 19, from Northern Ireland and Alistair Johnston, 21, from the Isle of Man are both studying full time three year degrees in International Relations and were singled out and restricted from full participation in the event. Both Rebecca and Alistair were originally invited to the talk about the Global Movement of Moderates by a group email sent from the University. Yet when class mates received confirmation of seats and further information, Rebecca was neglected from further communication and left confused.
Alistair says, “I was initially told I did have a seat, however, I was spoken to just before the event by the Dean of Social Sciences at the Malaysia campus who informed me that the British government didn’t want me at the talk due to my potential perspective concerning tuition fees in the UK.” The pair has been led to believe by other members of staff that Downing Street had asked for these restrictions as a condition for the talk to take place.
Professor Ansems de Vries of UNMC says, “Though insane, it was also telling. They [Downing Street] must be pretty scared to hear from protesting students as it was repeated three times that no British students were allowed in at all.”
“The British government didn’t want us to potentially embarrass them at their event,” Alistair added.
In order to allow Alistair and Rebecca to attend the event, another Professor asked the pair to keep a low profile and requested that they didn’t ask questions regarding any matter. “We were kindly allowed access to the talk by my Professor, who agreed it was very beneficial for my course,” says Rebecca.
However, during the event Rebecca and Alistair felt discriminated against, especially when Alistair was asked to move seats. “I was sat at the front but my presence was deemed controversial by government officials and I was asked by a professor to move further back from the front to avoid my being there less obvious,” he says.
Students question Cameron’s accountability
Rebecca has mixed feelings about the government and university after the event. Ironically, Cameron’s actions have made her develop stronger feelings against the government and its tuition fee policy. Rebecca says, “his [Cameron’s] actions have put more fuel to the fire.”
Alistair added, “Despite the change in tuition fees not affecting me, my confidence in David Cameron being able to justify his policies to us has been diminished. I noted that he praised the recent positive events in Burma, saying that democracy and freedom of speech looked likely to improve there, yet at the same time I feel my freedom of speech was being impaired,” he says.
Questions concerning the political situation in Burma, Syria, Iran, Palestine and Israel were answered by the PM, yet questions on tuition fees back home were not permitted.
The Prime Ministers praised the campus and regarded it as a “pioneering partnership” that “represents the best of British and best of Malaysia”, despite restricting British students access to the talk.
Both Alistair and Rebecca chose to study at UNMC to experience living in a different culture and society. Alistair says, “living here has helped me broaden my perspective on the world and improved my academic knowledge.” In fact, tuition fees and scholarships were not an issue for Alistair when choosing his degree as he is a resident of the Isle of Man where fees are covered for him whether he studies in the UK or at the Malaysia campus, a fact Number 10 possibly dismissed.
Criticisms of the Global Movement of Moderates initiative
Students at UNMC were left questioning the Global Movement of Moderates initiative and David Cameron’s political standing after the arrangement of the event. Despite arguing that the Global Movement of Moderates is there to give a platform to those people who “cherish democracy” so their voices can drown out those of extremists, students were left wondering where their platform for democratic debate was.
Cameron said, “Young people should be inspired to choose democracy”, yet students at Nottingham are questioning whether Cameron’s form of democracy is one they want to embrace along with the GMM initiative.
Criticising the GMM initiative, Alistair says, “Najib claimed Nelson Mandela is a prime example of a moderate in January, but in the context of apartheid, Mandela was seen by many as an extremist and a terrorist. In fact, by forcing compliance with the established systems, the GMM threatens to silence inspirational revolutionaries like Mandela. The term moderate is contentious, what is considered as moderate by one, is considered extreme by another.
“Cameron celebrated the Arab Spring, praising those who spoke out against the respective Arab governments. Yet, to prevent embarrassing debate over controversial government policy, No. 10 rejected freedom of speech by attempting to deny the presence of lecturers and first year British students. This is a reflection of the oppression and censorship they are criticising,” he says.
Not only were certain students restricted from participating fully in the event, members of the Politics department on the campus were also refused entry. Ansems de Vries says that staff members had to pose as PHD students because “The GMM ordered that no staff were to be permitted, as they wanted it to be an all student event.”
She added that if it wasn’t for the actions of individual members of staff resisting these restrictions then neither staff nor British students would have even entered the talk.
Giving advice to students at UNMC, Ansems de Vries says, “within this University you can set up a group, call it something different. There are people that speak out but are not always safe”.
“The Prime Ministers are shooting themselves in the foot,” she says in regards to promoting the GMM initiative in this way.
After the talk and the restrictions, Ansems de Vries says that students can “turn something against itself”. She addresses Malaysian students in particular, who claim that they self-censored at the event, out of concerns about repercussions.