By Murray Hunter

With more allegations of sexual harassment, university authorities around Malaysia appear to be turning a blind eye towards what appears to be a growing incidence of sexual harassment throughout their respective institutions. This appears to be a growing problem, however very few statistics exist, and most cases are not reported.

The only study found that attempts to report sexual harassment cases at University Sains Malaysia notes that up to 50% of students claim to be harassed, mostly females harassed by males. The study further discloses that up to 60% of respondents to their survey reported being victims to sexual jokes, 20% to unwanted sexual attention, and 8% to unwanted sexual coercion.

Out of the few cases that are reported, information is suppressed due to fears by Vice Chancellors’ that these cases will affect the reputation of their respective institutions.

Sexual harassment covers a diverse range of activities with various degrees of seriousness. These include;

1.     Verbal suggestions, abuse, or innuendo,

2.     Using humorous and sexual jokes to humiliate another,

3.     Non-verbal and vulgar gesturing such as leering in suggestive manners,

4.     Visual confrontations ranging from showing another pornographic materials or even exposing oneself,

5.     Annoying approaches through making unwanted social invitations,

6.     Psychological pressure, using peer group to persuade or coerce another into doing something they don’t want to,

7.     Psychological pressure, using position, or power in an organization to coerce and/or take advantage of another’s weak position,

8.     Physical approached through inappropriate touching, and

9.     Violent acts towards another threatening wellbeing including sexual attacks ranging from assault to rape.

Very few cases of sexual harassment are ever reported within Malaysian universities and those that are reported have never received any publicity to date. Some examples of the type of harassment that is common include;

The head of security of a university in Northern Malaysia was caught via CCTV having sex with a subordinate in the Vice Chancellors office during the night time. Only the woman, the subordinate was disciplined through sacking.

With the increase of foreign students into Malaysian universities, it is becoming very common for Malaysian academics to have affairs with vulnerable students from China, and some of the old Soviet Republics. These affairs seem to start with intimate supervision which lead to excursions outside the university. One university Vice Chancellor is rumoured to have taken a Chinese student as a second wife and put her on staff.

It is not uncommon to hear stories of lecturers having affairs with post-graduate students. There are many stories within the corridors of most of the universities within Malaysia of lecturers taking students for a second wife. Some undergraduate students have purportedly even ended up getting pregnant from lecturers. It is difficult to confirm any of these cases as usually, the student quickly disappears from the university campus.  

In addition, there have been stories of a few exposure cases of lecturers to female students, and student gossip about the odd lecturer who likes to touch students in suggestive manners. Sexual jokes and innuendo are not uncommon in Malaysian universities today. Institutional power-sexual dynamics within Malaysian universities can be sexist and intimidating. There tends to be a chauvinistic manner from male staff towards female staff, who are often treated as being subordinate to males. There also appears to be an ignorance of what constitutes sexual harassment, among staff at Malaysian universities.

At the student level, wolf whistling by male students to female students is extremely common around universities in Malaysia. It’s almost cultural, where groups of male students ‘hang out’ and show their prowess to their peers through their whistling and comments to those of the opposite sex. Most female students, particularly, the Malays are very forgiving in this environment and take it in their stride, rather than make any reports.

At a more serious level, peep holes in public toilets are common in female toilets around Klang Valley. Stalking on social media is another growing concern, subject to many complaints with peers, but not to the authorities.

These remain unreported, mostly because of the ignorance students have about the laws and rules of sexual harassment, and the reluctance of staff to make reports, in fear that this may lead to retribution against them within the workplace, and hinder chances for promotion.
                                                                                                            The common thread among all these stories is that they never make public news. Malaysian university authorities would prefer a clean appearance to the public, rather than go through the potential scandal of dealing out justice to the perpetrators of any sexual harassment. As a consequence, few victims ever come forward, and harassers get away with their actions.

Little is done to stamp out this slur on the integrity of Malaysian higher education institutions.

In Malaysia today there are regulations on three levels against sexual harassment.

All Malaysian universities have sexual harassment regulations. However, although they exist, these regulations are rarely publicized, and very little is done in the way of conducting workshops to education students and staff about the issue.

Under the Malaysian Employment Act, sexual harassment is a major offence and punishable by dismissal.

Although there is no specific sexual harassment legislation in Malaysia, sexual harassment is covered within the penal code. Section 351 covers assault, Section 354 outraging modesty, Section 376, rape, using gestures and language, Section 509, and outraging decency in Section 37-DD.

However even with all these laws and regulations in place, it is usually the victim who is usually punished by having to leave that particular university, rather than the offender.

Institutes of higher education lack the compassion needed to deal with the victims of sexual abuse, and worry about their reputations more. Investigations are not systematic or fair, and there is a lot of institutional intimidation towards those who lodge reports. This is a major failing of Malaysian universities in their quest to look immaculate to the Malaysian public at large.

Malaysian academics have suggested a number of reasons why sexual harassment is occurring within Malaysian universities.

Improper dressing, exposure to pornographic materials, close proximity and intimacy during work, and drugs are the major reasons given for sexual harassment in Malaysian universities. But the researchers didn’t provide any evidence to support this. The argument with indecent dressing tends to put the responsibility for sexual harassment with the victim. The arguments of close proximity and intimacy with students and drugs also appear to absolve the perpetrator of total responsibility for his or her actions.

The author believes that part of the problem is the repression of sexuality in Malaysia today. There is also an element of power and the belief by the perforator in his ability to take advantage without fear of punishment is related to the incidence of sexual assault in Malaysian universities. One researcher made the observation that “a corrupt system is likely to tolerate high levels of student-on-student violence as well as abuses of power by staff”.

The basic problem is a denial that the problem actually exists, where chauvinistic Vice Chancellors in Malaysia trying to sweep this problem under the carpet.                          Malaysian universities are only a microcosm of the rest of the nation where bullying and sexual harassment is rife along with other problems like baby dumping, assassinations, wrongful killings, robbery, and assault are commonplace.

Sexual harassment within universities is a worldwide issue. However if Malaysia is going to face this problem, university authorities must be open about it and punish the culprits, rather than suppressing these cases.

This is particularly the case where the Malaysian education sector is pursuing more enrolments from foreign students. The academic environment within Malaysia must be seen to be safe.