Gilbert Goh experiences protest by students in Sydney.

My first experience of a public protest

Gilbert Goh / Syndey, Australia

I joined the demonstration held outside Parliament House on 2 Sep (Wed) at 2pm, Martin Place Sydney together with more than 100 international students. They were calling for fairer treatment of foreign students in the areas of protection from unscrupulous private schools, longer working periods for international students, and from racial abuse.

Several TV news network were on hand to cover the protest, promising the possibility that the event will be broadcast to the whole nation to witness.

The foreign student industry is a huge money spinner for the educational sector, amounting to around $15 billion. The Australian government has allowed an explosion in the number of shady private colleges. This has created a boom in the international student sector amounting to more than 170,000 students in the vocational, education and training (VET) sector. A third of these students is Indian.

Lack of regulation has put students at risk. Since 2001, the number of private colleges has leapt from 664 to 4892. These colleges are capitalising on the desperation of international students to get permanent residency, charging tens of thousands of dollars for placement fees for dodgy VET courses.

This is my first peaceful demonstration outside Singapore. Though a dozen police officers surrounded the small but noisy gathering at the busiest business district in New South Wales, I never felt more safe and proud that people here could protest in peace on issues that matter to them. Freedom of speech is a very precious democratic entity here which I can never find back home in Singapore.

Organised by the  CCCC (Cross Campus Concessions Coalition), representing tens of thousands of international students from abroad, student union leaders addressed the crowd with loudhailers. The crowd made up of students from India, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Korea, China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Africa. After the protest, the students marched peacefully down Martin Place carrying placards, banners and flags.

Incidentally, The Australian Greens have called on the Federal Government to introduce a national concession card for local and foreign students. Currently, international students pay full adult fare while travelling on Sydney’s expensive public transport whereas local students pay concessional rate. A return trip to the city by train costs around $5.50 after peak hour.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said that NSW and Victoria didn’t offer international students public transport concession cards and it is time that  one was created for all undergraduates and postgraduate students for use across the country.

A Senate inquiry hearing into the welfare of international students takes place in Sydney today, Wednesday.

Among the issues student leaders raised today at the protest outside Parliament House include:

1. Stricter protection for international students, especially when several private schools closed down last month with no sign that school fees paid by students will be returned. I remember a similar incident in Singapore. Brookes Business School closed down when the principal admitted to issuing bogus degrees issued by RMIT. The major difference is that students here could protest in the open outside Parliament House whereas our international students in Singapore could not do the same without facing the possibility of being arrested.

2. Racism affecting the Indian students during the past month that could trigger reprisals. Several Indian students shouted “Down with racism” angrily when student leaders spoke on the sensitive issue. Being a typical kiasi Singaporean, I looked for the nearest exit point in case the crowd turned violent but nothing of the sort happened.

3. International students now can work part time for a limited 20 hours a week and face deportation if they exceeded that limit. Many students secretly work longer hours as they cannot cope with the high cost of living here. Student leaders are calling for the limited hours to be extended further.

I learned a lot from my first protest march outside Singapore. I felt a sense of pride that young students representing the future of the world could muster up enough courage to come out and speak up on what they believe in.

I wish that our young university students back home could do likewise.