Hong Kong University is one of the top universities in the region. But right now, its students are not happy.
Every single person I have met in Hong Kong thus far has mentioned this. The vice-premier of the People’s Republic of China, Li Keqiang, had visited Hong Kong, and been to Hong Kong University (HKU). While he had been there, the campus had been filled with police, and people who hadn’t been invited were kept away. Three student protesters complained of having been manhandled, with one saying that he had been locked up for an hour. You can read more about it here.
A man living in a residential area the vice-premier had visited was also stopped by the police for “breaching a security area” because he was wearing a T-shirt asking for universal suffrage for the Tiananmen Square crackdown. On 22 August 2011, 300 journalists marched to the police headquarters in Wan Chai to protest against the security measures that had been taken, which meant that they had been unable to get up close to the vice-premier to ask questions.
I’d always known that the people of Hong Kong were proud of their liberties, but I had no idea just how fiercely they would protect them. But this evening I sat in my grandma’s tiny apartment and watched the live coverage of the rally HKU students had arranged to protest the way the police and university had handled the whole event.
It was all very orderly. They had boxes put out front, with labels for students, alumni and the public. People would put their names in their respective boxes, and if your name was pulled out of the box you would get 3 minutes to speak. It was the same for everyone from the students right up to the vice-chancellor of HKU itself; everyone got the same amount of time and the same treatment regardless of age or status. The MC reminded people to listen to each other, and calmed the crowd down when they got worked up. It could get loud, but it wasn’t dangerous or anything.
In the big scheme of things, a student being locked up for an hour isn’t that big a deal. No one died, no one was beaten or tortured. But for the students of HKU, it was a blemish on their proud tradition of freedom, democracy and openness. And they weren’t afraid to stand up and be counted, to speak out and hold those in charge accountable. Because of their outcry, the vice-chancellor of the university, Tsui Lap Chee, had to publish an apology, as well as miss a conference in Shanghai so he could be at their rally. My grandma also told me that the law faculty of HKU has also offered to help the manhandled students sue the police.
It wasn’t a particularly “happening” rally, and apart from the endless stream of 3-minute speeches nothing much happened. But as a Singaporean, I was fascinated.
Of course, in Singaporean context this would not happen. Such a public gathering would be illegal, and with the laws against illegal assembly (where one person can also constitute an illegal assembly), the locking up of the student would have been justified as legal in the first place.
But what about our university students? Do they have the fire that I saw within the students of HKU?
I never studied in any of Singapore’s universities, so I’ll be very grateful if those who have would share their experience. But from my visits to the various campuses, I have always observed that our tertiary education institutions have been extremely depoliticised, where students are not supposed to be able to go into controversial topics or discuss local politics or carry out peaceful demonstrations to express their views. Which is a pity, because all over the world universities are some of the most politicised places you will find.
When I was Wintec and then Victoria University in New Zealand, the walls of the buildings were often covered with posters. Many of them would be for indie bands and amateur theatre performances, but there would also be campaign posters, as well as posters for peaceful demonstrations and gatherings and protests. You might not want to join a protest, but it was always clear to all that if you had something to say, you could come out and say it without fear. And then you could be prepared for the exchange, the discussion and the debate.
But on the campuses of NUS and NTU and SMU, the walls often seem to be bare and scrubbed clean. Once in awhile I’ll see posters announcing some campus event, always something neutral and innocuous. Where is the fire?
After all, university is where we come face to face with our convictions, and everything we believe in is put to the test. Everyone has a view and everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to prove something. Debates rage. Ideals are born and passion bubbles over. The fire burns within each young soul. This is what it means to be in university, to start emerging into the world and into society as an adult, and to learn about life and what it means. A university without politics, a university that does not give all argument an equal chance to be proposed and judged in the marketplace of ideas, is a university without a soul.
And once the universities start losing their soul, you know that the soul of a society will not be far behind.