On October 14, 2022, officials at Universiti Malaya (UM) shut down a forum on freedom of speech on university campuses hosted by the student union (UMSU). The decision was reportedly prompted by the participation of a former student and invited speaker, Wong Yan Ke, who the university found controversial.
UMSU had organized the event as part of the university’s orientation week and invited Ke as a speaker, in his capacity as a coordinator for Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), a human rights organization. When Ke arrived at the auditorium for the event, security prevented him from accessing the building. After several attempts to gain entry, UMSU members escorted Ke in through a back door. According to reports, UM staff warned UMSU chairman Ooi Guo Shen against allowing Ke to participate and stated that this aspect of the event had not been approved by administration. UMSU later stated that they had received approval, however, another SUARAM representative was originally slated to participate; Ke was named as a replacement later on. UM also threatened Shen with disciplinary action if the event continued. When UMSU refused to remove Ke, staff turned off Ke’s microphone and ordered the audience to disperse. Following the cancellation, UMSU members condemned UM staff actions and called on the university to apologize.
Previously, on October 14, 2019, Ke had engaged in an act of protest during his graduation ceremony, holding a sign calling for the resignation of UM’s vice-chancellor Abdul Rahim Hashim, whom Ke accused of racism. UM filed a police report against Ke following the incident. UM’s interference in the 2022 event was reportedly influenced by an email from final-year student Amirul Fahmi, who expressed concerns about Ke’s participation damaging the university’s reputation.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the cancellation of an academic event and actions taken to prevent the participation of a former student activist. Higher education officials should protect academic freedom and take all available steps to ensure the exercise of academic freedom, including during on-campus academic events. Cancellations of and efforts to prevent events undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.