OPINION: Cambridge Union failed its proud free speech tradition

OPINION: Cambridge Union failed its proud free speech tradition

The Malaysian PM's antisemitic views weren't robustly challenged when he spoke at Cambridge Union - and it must learn from the shameful event - say 8 of its ex-presidents

Mahathir Mohamad during his address to the Cambridge Union
Mahathir Mohamad during his address to the Cambridge Union

On Sunday night, the notoriously antisemitic Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad addressed one of this country’s bastions of free speech, the Cambridge Union.

He used his platform to repeat the reprehensible antisemitic rhetoric for which he was already well-known.

Responding to a question from the interviewer about previous comments he has made about Jewish people he said “I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.”

This went unchallenged by those present and was greeted with laughter from the audience.

This level of febrile Jew hatred must be confronted – and that is what the Cambridge Union has traditionally done. Encouraging robust debate while not allowing minority groups to be subjected to hatred is one of the reasons why the Union has long enjoyed its prestigious reputation.

We are disappointed that The Union representative running the event did not challenge the shameful views he allowed Dr Mohamad to share by asking him the question in the first place.

It is also disappointing that the students present did not intervene as opposed to casually laughing at racist remarks. As Edmund Burke said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Such views are not only unsavoury but dangerous as they perpetuate damaging tropes and legitimise hatred.

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We became Presidents of the Cambridge Union because of the organisation’s historic tradition of free speech. That proud legacy must mean that all speakers are held to account by the students. It also means that when students themselves fail to confront racism, they too are held to account.

It is of deep disappointment to all of us that clearly racist views went unchallenged and some audience members laughed in response to Dr Mohamad’s antisemitic remarks.

With freedom of speech comes the duty to stand up and call out bigotry. The Union must learn from Sunday’s shameful events.

Article by ex-Cambridge Union Presidents:

  • Adam Cannon – Easter 1996
  • Lauren Davidson – Lent 2011
  • Lance Foreman MEP elect Lent 1985
  • Jeremy Brier – michaelmas 2001
  • Nick Chatrath – Lent 1996
  • Gareth Weetman, President, Michaelmas 1997
  • George Bevis – Michaelmas 1999
  • Joel Fenster – Easter 2013
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