Dyana Sofya on graduation day.
Dyana Sofya on graduation day.

I went to Universiti Teknologi Mara to pursue a degree in law. From the time of its establishment, Dewan Latihan RIDA, which became Kolej MARA, later Institut Teknologi MARA (ITM) and finally UiTM, only accepts Bumiputera students.

University life was interesting, or so I thought. It was the first time I mingled with students from all over Malaysia. I met friends who grew up in a Felda plantation, friends who came from elite national boarding schools, and friends who were from Sabah and Sarawak, and I found that we were different in many ways despite being Bumiputera; the way we spoke, the food we liked, the way we dressed, our interactions with each other.

On the first day in UiTM’s main campus in Shah Alam, Selangor, I met a male student whose mother was a rubber tapper in a Felda estate in Negeri Sembilan. I had never met anyone with his upbringing and it humbled me in many ways. He was different from me, and I was afraid that my urban upbringing would intimidate him. But we did get along and learned a lot from each other and we became great friends.

Another character that I encountered in my first week was a female student who would not even lift her face when talking to a male counterpart. She had probably come from an all-girls’ school. She eventually managed to gather enough confidence to talk to others. Another memorable character was a sweet tall lady who wore a hijab and who spoke with an English accent. She had grown up in the UK, a rarity in UiTM.

Generally, those from elite schools were much more confident in their demeanour and were often aces at debating.

For the first few weeks in UiTM, I only hung out with people from the city. We had more in common and we could understand each other better. Eventually I warmed up to others and made many great friends.

The social exposure that I got when I was in UiTM may not have been different from what is common in any other public university, but I am glad that at least I got to know many Malays/Bumis from various states, class and social backgrounds.

Although UiTM only admitted Bumiputera students, we had multi-ethnic lecturers. They were passionate and honest, taught us with sincerity and were never tired of our never-ending trouble-making attitude. Looking back, I have huge respect for this particular group of people who actually contributed to teaching students of a different descent, in a mono-ethnic institution which refused to admit students from their own races.

We had a very supportive Chinese lecturer and he could sing P. Ramlee’s songs beautifully. He would spend extra hours with students who needed extra help in their assignments, without asking for anything in return.

 

Climbing over the gates after midnight was one of the excellent skills I picked up during my stay

 

 

One particular English lecturer of Indian descent, who liked to use newspaper cuttings in his teaching, gave us nicknames based on the way we looked and our behaviour in class. Perhaps he was stereotyping, but most of us didn’t mind that. I was ‘Puan Sri’ (a title for a woman whose spouse is given the federal title Tan Sri). I have no idea why he called me that but most probably this was because of my strikingly dyed blonde hair that was considered out of the norm for UiTM students, though quite common in the law school.

I was once fined by a campus guard for sporting that particular hair colour, and also for donning a shirt that was deemed too short. Yes, according to the written rules, female students were only allowed to wear blouses long enough to cover their hips.

Since I was living on campus, I had to adhere to curfews too. Gates to the residential colleges were usually locked by 12am. Being the active person that I was, I had to attend club meetings and social events that would only end later than that. Due to my rebellious nature and refusal to submit to ridiculous rules, climbing over the gates after midnight was one of the excellent skills I picked up during my stay for two and a half years, and I never got caught.

Perhaps some people will cringe when they read this. But I know why they would cringe: because I’m a girl. Boys do this all the time, during my time and perhaps before and after my time. However, because they’re boys, it seems natural for society to accept such behaviour. I simply did what is the norm for boys; I just spoke my mind.

During my first year, I was required to take up a third language for three semesters. I was eager to learn Chinese and I did fairly well in the first semester but deteriorated towards the end, and today, I am unable to construct even a single sentence of Chinese. This is most probably because of lack of practice since I haven’t had many Chinese-speaking friends to speak to. Nevertheless, that was a valuable addition to my degree. I have only myself to blame for the fact that I had good grasp of Chinese when I graduated.

Some people believe that admission into UiTM is easy to obtain: that as long as you are a Malay/Bumiputera, you will definitely get accepted, even if you have only mediocre qualifications. I beg to differ. I have friends who are Malays and who have average qualifications, but have been unable to gain entry and have had to fork out private money or take up loans for entry into private universities instead. Some graduated with a degree that is regarded to have much more credibility than UiTM’s. This may be due to the standard of education provided in these private universities being much higher, comparable to the amount of money invested in them.

One may opine that students from UiTM may have been taking the opportunity, the place and the cheap fees for granted. This may be true. UiTM, previously known as Dewan Latihan RIDA, was established to provide education and professional training to poor Malays/Bumis from rural areas. RIDA itself stands for Rural and Industrial Development Authority.

But what is happening today is that even those who can very well afford to pay for their own tertiary education elsewhere are being allowed into UiTM. This fills up space that was supposed to be given to the less fortunate who have bright minds. So the question that should be asked now is whether we are actually helping the poor Malays with this institution, or are we just providing opportunities for privileged Malays to take advantage of the system? However, every time this question is raised, most Malays will fume and accuse those who question the system of being pengkhianat bangsa (traitors to the race).

Then again, we should ask who the real pengkhianat is? The able Malays who are taking advantage of the system, or those who question why the opportunity is given to those who are less deserving instead of to the primary target? What about those who are in charge of elevating the standard of UiTM to be on par with world-class universities, and for the long-term educational benefit of the Malays/Bumis, but who instead decide that UiTM is not to chase after rankings and who have allowed a drastic drop in the standard of education provided by the university?

UiTM is my alma mater and it has contributed to the nation, and I am indebted for the opportunity given to me to pursue my studies there. Due to my fondness for the place, I am saddened that its noble cause has been manipulated and its standard degraded. I believe that UiTM should be reformed and brought back to its real objective to help the poor, and kept free from political elements in our far too politicised education system.

Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud is a member of the Malaysian Bar and a political secretary for DAP.

This article was published as “My First Year in University” in Young and Malay: Growing Up in Multicultural Malaysia, edited by Ooi Kee Beng and Wan Hamidi Hamid. The book is available from its publisher Gerakbudaya and from all good bookstores in Malaysia.

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