One Good, one Ugly

January 22, 2013
It was supposed to be a forum but the Bawani-Sharifah Zohra showdown had all the hallmarks of a political brawl.
When Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) law student KS Bawani was being berated, humiliated, belittled, not a single undergraduate rose to defend her or the integrity of intellectual discourse. At first they did applaud for some of the points Bawani made, but when Suara Wanita 1Malaysia (SW1M) president, Sharifah Zohra Jabeen Syed Shah Miskin, rudely intervened, the whole atmosphere changed. This time, most of the 2,000 undergraduates cheered and clapped as Sharifah Zohra ranted away. Bawani asked a question about free education but received flak in return. She became a mere spectator to the caustic attacks heaped on her.

This was supposed to be a forum about students and politics but it turned out to be a one-woman show, with Sharifah Zohra talking down on Bawani in the large hall of UUM where the encounter took place. UUM gave SW1M the permission to use the hall, but the university chose to distance itself from the forum. The event was tarnished by Sharifah Zohra and it appears that UUM did not want to get its hand dirtied as well. Yet the mud thrown by SW1M also struck UUM in its face.

From the time Sharifah Zohra snatched the microphone from Bawani, the tenor of the forum became distasteful and inane. It was not even a discussion panel because Sharifah Zohra hijacked the event and went into a long, tiresome, irrelevant monologue, giving Biwani no right of reply. The law student could only look on speechlessly until she finally walked away while the SW1M chief mocked her with her parting farewell shot.

The hostile face-off happened last month and it would have remained unknown had it not been captured on video, which went viral. Overnight Bawani became a sensation – and a household name – for speaking her mind. She would have become a bigger hero had she snatched back the microphone, launched a counter-attack, fired up the audience and got all the undergraduates rooting for her and seeing her detested enemy beating a hasty retreat.

In the end it did not happen. Bawani respectfully stood her ground while the students let the domineering Sharifah Zohra have her way. They appeared to have been cowed into submission by her intimidatory attitude. She behaved more like a conceited, loutish headmistress lecturing her frightened class than a level-headed panellist engaging in a sensible argument. It is doubtful whether all the 2,000 undergraduates had learned anything from the forum which is just a brainwashing session. They came there not to talk about politics but to have politics thrust down their throats.

Ugly side
A university is supposed to mould students to be independent and mature adults who can think and reason things out with clarity and discernment. It must ideally be a “centre of free inquiry and criticism” on whose hallowed ground great minds are forged and brave souls born. Sadly, universities in Malaysia are not hubs of intellectual ferment and excitement, but have withered and become another weak limb of the civil service – beholden to the government. In this stifling environment, dons are afraid to stand up and be counted. Do not expect the undergraduates to show an independent streak.

If the UUM forum did nothing to enlighten the minds of the 2,000 undergraduates, the whole show gave them a peek into the coming verbal battle between Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. Bawani and Sharifah Zohra are political partisans, with the former reportedly aligned to Parti Sosialis Malaysia, and the latter to the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (Kimma), which is BN-friendly. Sharifah Zohra was the more aggressive of the two, blatantly advancing the interests of the ruling party. The mindset of Sharifah Zohra is typical of Umno’s style of running down other races and showing little respect for people of other faiths.

But listen: let’s hear another debate now between the two antagonists moderated by an apolitical person. Let the showdown begin on neutral ground, and listen: invite undergraduates of all universities to the arena for them to cheer or jeer whichever speaker makes a strong case or whoever fumbles. And listen: let the young minds themselves join in the debate to question, prod, critique fearlessly and intelligently. There must be thousands of undergraduates out there who are willing to speak up despite all the hurdles placed in their paths. They must be politically aware of what is happening in their homeland and are prepared to play their decisive role as responsible citizens.

And listen, Bawani and Sharifah Zohra: you two need not say sorry to each other because there is nothing to apologise. To apologise smacks of insincerity. You both spoke from convictions and harboured very strong political views. Even if Sharifah Zohra apologises for grabbing the microphone, it will not wash away the mutual hostility. Listen, Sharifah Zohra: you need not forgive Bawani because nobody asked for forgiveness and you were not the victim crucified. Listen, Malaysia: voters have witnessed the incident and they are disgusted with the conduct of the elder woman. If Sharifah Zohra is fighting a proxy war for BN, her spat with Bawani only exposes the ugly side of BN.

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