However he also believes that the PTPTN is still relevant and just needs refinement.
PETALING JAYA: The students’ sit-in rally at Dataran Merdeka has ruffled many feathers but not those of Deputy Higher Education Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah.
In an exclusive interview with FMT last night, the outspoken deputy minister asserted that the students who have been camping there overnight since Saturday had every right to voice their opinion over an issue that is “close to their hearts”.
Over 300 students had set up camp in Dataran Merdeka over the weekend to push for free tertiary education and the abolishment of the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) loan scheme.
As expected, the ruling government has criticised the move while members of the opposition have gone down to the ground to offer their support.
Saifuddin, however, acknowleged the students’ right to occupy Dataran Merdeka as long as the sit-in was conducted within the parameters of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2011.
“Considering that the police haven’t taken any action, my reading of the sit-in is that it is legal,” he said. “And it is their right although I personally believe that the PTPTN is still relevant and just needs improvement.”
“Whether or not these students get support from their peers or the same kind of sentiment from the public is another matter. I’m not saying I agree they should be there but it is their right and I recognise it.”
Saifuddin’s stand will be seen as gracious compared to that of Higher Education Minister, Khaled Nordin, who yesterday challenged the students to return the loan money currently used to fund their education if they were so unhappy with it.
When asked whether he agreed with Khaled, Saifuddin said that that viewpoint was separate matter altogether.
Though mindful of his position, he nevertheless said that any disagreement over the issue should be directed solely at the students’ demands and their choice in voicing them.
“If we look at the issue from other perspectives, then it is like telling someone who can’t play football to play basketball instead,” Saifuddin said.
“That’s not the way to handle things. If they love football but can’t play well then we should facilitate football instead of discussing basketball.”
‘I’m put in a spot
The Temerloh MP added that he too would have visited the students in Dataran Merdeka if not for the garland of flowers that they had placed on framed pictures of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, and Khaled on Saturday.
He noted that the flowers were a Hindu symbolism for death and that it was “uncalled for” to use them in this instance.
“It is a little difficult for me to visit the students after they put flowers on my boss,” Saifuddin said. “That has put me in a spot. And the situation is a little heated at the moment.”
“Then there have been opposition leaders who have visited the students, which is their right, but which has also given a certain perception to some people.”
This isn’t the first time that Saifuddin has backed student rallies. Last December, he found himself in hot water after he defended the rights of all students to assembly and voice their views even after a protester lowered a banner bearing Najib’s likeness outside the Umno headquarters.
An angry pro-government group responded by demanding that Saifuddin take responsibility for the “banner incident” by resigning from his position as deputy minister and Umno supreme council member.
But Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM) came to Saifuddin’s defence, saying that he had been made “victim by certain parties in the government”.