Beating authoritarianism with consistency
Writer: Yin Shao Loong
Published: Fri, 01 Feb 2013
LONG exposure to authoritarian, race-based politics has shaped who we are on a moral, intellectual, and cultural level, including our ideas about authority, argument, acceptable speech, group identity, and national destiny.
Shifting away from Umno and the Barisan Nasional’s brand of soft authoritarianism will not be easy, but this is what is needed for democracy to deepen in Malaysia.
BN has been in power long enough to exert a strong gravitational force on the methods and principles of our political culture. Even their critics within civil society, the opposition, and the public sometimes resort to the very methods they otherwise stand against.
The Bar Council has been known as an opponent of the Sedition Act and a defender of constitutional democracy.
Last week however, the president of the Bar Council condoned the use of the Sedition Act against Datuk Ibrahim Ali for the latter’s incitement to burn Bibles.
Additionally, Karpal Singh has filed a police report against Ibrahim citing violation of the Sedition Act even though Karpal himself is currently being prosecuted under the Act and his party has opposed it as a draconian piece of legislation.
This kind of inconsistent behaviour can fuel simplistic judgements that little difference exists between our present political alternatives. There are, of course, substantial differences, but a struggle waged on principle must strive for consistency.
Supporting the use of the Sedition Act against even Ibrahim Ali was a breach of principle. The broad definition of sedition within the Act makes it ripe for abuse by a government scared of accountability.
There are many non-authoritarian laws within the Penal Code that would serve equally well to handle Ibrahim’s threats.
The provisions of the Sedition Act against raising ill-will and disaffection have traditionally been used to criminalise dissent against the government. This runs counter to the spirit of democracy where it should be legitimate to question power.
The call to use the repressive weapon of sedition is a symptom of a bigger problem in Malaysian political life where the authoritarian political culture promoted by Umno during its hegemony has influenced the behaviour of its critics.
Recently, some people wanted to lodge a police report against Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for his comments about Tunku Abdul Rahman’s granting of citizenship to various Malayans prior to Merdeka being a bigger crime than Dr Mahathir’s involvement in granting ICs for votes in Sabah.
Using a police report as a punitive measure is part of the old political culture of intimidation. Far better than lodging a report would be to expose Dr Mahathir’s faulty grasp of historical facts and logic in public, as several writers have done.
The melodrama of filing a police report against someone annoying has become a staple of Malaysian political theatre. Rather than use more rational forms of debate and argument, the ritual of the political police report – backed by repressive laws such as the Sedition Act and the compliance of the police and judiciary with the powers that be – became a way for the threat of authoritarian state power to be used to silence dissent.
Police reports should be lodged if a crime has been committed. If there is a breach of the law, the police and the attorney-general are duty bound to take up the matter.
However, democrats should refrain from exercising those draconian laws that criminalise legitimate dissent and democratic freedoms.
Malaysia would not be a better, more democratic place if we incarcerated authoritarians under the ISA or charged them for sedition. We would thereby perpetuate authoritarianism ourselves.
Equally, if we stand against race politics we should move beyond the kinds of hate-speech and prejudice promoted by patriarchal, race-based politics.
Some of the outcry against Sharifah Zohra Jabeen’s “Listen, listen, listen…” tirade against student KS Bawani was sexist and racist in nature. It is good that Malaysians are standing up against bullying. However, it wasn’t Sharifah Zohra’s gender or ethnicity that was at fault, it was her actions and uncouth words.
Similarly, some commentators are fond of expressing dissatisfaction with Dr Mahathir by cursing him via his father’s ethnicity. It is not so much that he is ethnically X or Y, rather that he is being hypocritical or illiberal. Greater precision in our criticism would help us avoid compounding one problem with another.
Umno and its fellows in BN didn’t start out as authoritarian parties, they became so through an excess of power and a fear of change via the ballot box. They did start out as race-based parties because they subscribed to the idea that humans could be divided into “race” groups based on physical and cultural stereotypes, and that each such group was fundamentally antagonistic to the other.
The race-based party existed to defend one race from another. It promoted antagonism and protection from mutually-assured destruction rather than empathy, friendship, and mutual quest for social justice.
Science and natural history doesn’t support the validity of race. Race is a social construct that requires tremendous effort to create through deliberate political engineering and unclear thinking.
Unless we know clearly what we want to leave behind, we will have a hard time having a clear vision of where we intend to go and how we want to get there.
Political consistency and clarity takes effort and mindfulness, and nobody who desires genuine change is free from the responsibility to strive for them.