Politics of disappearance

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Yeo Yang Poh warns us that ‘the politics of disappearance’ – the gradual disappearance of societal pillars such as justice, fairness, democracy and accountability – is becoming more pervasive in Malaysia. It is time for Malaysians to banish such disappearances. No justice for sale! No more vanishing tricks!

Ido not understand why so many people are mesmerised by Houdini’s acts of making huge objects seemingly disappear. We know that those objects did not really vanish. Those were just clever tricks.

Politicians are far more skillful and authentic. In fact, they make significant things disappear for real.

For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s, politicians with military flair in South America had systematically made thousands of their troublesome citizens literally disappear.

These past days the junta in Burma has been working hard to make daily events disappear from the streets of Yangon and from the psyche of the Burmese people. “Go home or be shot” was the health warning released by the junta.
 

Gradual paralysis

Malaysia is indeed more fortunate. No such public-health advice was necessary, when more than 2,000 people (mostly lawyers) came forward on 26 September 2007 in Putrajaya to claim and exercise their basic freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Some attempts were made to render it more difficult for participants to reach the place of assembly – which made them even more determined, and caused the event to last much longer than it would have otherwise – but no barbaric threat was issued.

Truly, in such matters of fundamental rights, Malaysia performs better than some countries, such as Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Burma, Uganda, Cuba, and a list of others one would paint with the same brush.

Does that mean that we ought to sit back and count our lucky stars that the politics of disappearance has not arrived at its nadir in Malaysia? And should we wait for the stroke of that brush to reach us?

There is another brand of politics of disappearance flourishing in Malaysia, a less lethal but nonetheless paralysing kind. It engineers the gradual disappearance of societal pillars such as justice, fairness, democracy and accountability. Without the usual swiftness of the magical art of vanishing, the Malaysian brand of disappearance works somewhat slowly and is, thus, more difficult to detect.

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The latest example is the disappearance, newly discovered, of some records related to the Navy’s RM6.75 billion purchase of six offshore patrol vessels. How long will this scar remain in our consciousness? What impact will it have on our actions?

Lawyers have long realised the potency of such a dose of slow poison. We, therefore, engaged, lobbied, proposed, urged, and pleaded. We submitted memorandum after memorandum. We passed resolution after resolution. For decades we went through ‘proper channels’.

Nothing much has improved.


Historic walk for justice

Then came the homemade video of a dialogue-revealing monologue that rivals the best lines by Shakespeare, Beckett, Pinter, or Gao. The audio-visual effects of the video have had a huge impact. The content of the video clip is chilling and outrageous. The video clip sent a major tremor through the legal fraternity and civil society.

But that was not the greatest shock.

As if the original sensory treatment was not jolting enough, the authorities’ response to it seemed calculated to administer even more shock.

‘What tremor? I did not feel any earthquake’ – this was the nature of one amazing official reaction.

‘Uh?’ is perhaps the politest comment one could give to that ostrich-like response.

Seeing that the authorities appeared to be immunised against movements on the political Richter scale, and since decades of quiet diplomacy had come to naught, lawyers thought that a gentle walk might shake the ground that tremors had failed to move.

Ah, that historic Walk for Justice!

Its effect was felt, not just by those who had participated or witnessed it; but by civil society in general. Its meaning was understood by the rakyat, its significance appreciated.

The success and importance of the Walk were confirmed when it drew strong and emotional attacks from some in authority. For them to call the Walk ‘unbecoming’ testified to its appropriate effectiveness. If, instead of 2,000, only twenty lawyers had turned up, the event would simply have been laughed off rather than smeared.

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Saying that the Bar Council behaves like the Opposition (whatever that means) discloses the kind of desperation that drives one to illogical generalisation, labelling and personal attack. It betrays an inability to respond with reason.

Some accused the lawyers who took the Walk of thinking that they were in Pakistan and reminded us that we are ‘not Pakistan’. How thankful we are of this fact. But what has been left unsaid is that the Bar Council took its position and action precisely to ensure that we do not become Pakistan.

Justice for sale?

Why is the Malaysian Bar so concerned about the revelations in the video clip?

The central issue is a grave one. Bluntly put, it is about whether justice is for sale in Malaysia.

The selection and promotion of judges should not be the subject matter of brokerage or patronage, least of which conducted by persons with business or political interests or, worse, by litigants and likely litigants! The video clip exposes exactly the chilling possibility that this might well have happened!

The alleged offence being such a serious one, how can any response from the authorities, short of an immediate full-scale inquiry, ever suffice? Anything less will be an extension of the politics of disappearance, wanting to make a scandal vaporise into thin air.

Of course, the question of the authenticity of the video clip is a relevant one and should be examined. But it is far from being the only issue that demands an investigation. Rather, it is one of many issues that must be simultaneously investigated in depth and in a transparent, thorough and convincing manner.

Commission of inquiry

The only satisfactory way to do so is by way of holding a Commission of Inquiry (with full powers under the Act) comprising persons of impeccable integrity and who are acceptable to those for whom the justice system is constructed, namely, civil society.

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This is the Bar’s demand, and, I believe, the citizens’ demand. In the face of such revealing prima facie evidence, we cannot permit this episode and the issues raised by it to disappear from society’s radar screen, after an initial uproar, without a meaningful investigation that establishes true accountability. Otherwise, we deserve to be harshly and derogatorily judged by future generations.

The politics of disappearance is designed to escape accountability. Ultimately, if the politics of disappearance succeeds, it is because we, the Malaysian people, permit it to succeed.

Wittingly or otherwise, too many of us have allowed this game of tricks to go on for too long.

When the nude-squat video surfaced, the people were outraged. When images of Nurin’s gory death were seen, citizens were enraged. People demanded action. Nobody argued, “Hold on, let’s first find out whether the video or the images are authentic.”

Rage, when it is not blind, and when it is directed not at persons but at wrong or evil deeds, is a useful catalyst for reform.

It is time for Malaysians – but we need a sufficient number of Malaysians – to banish the politics of disappearance. Are we up to the task this time?

Yeo Yang Poh is the immediate past president of the Bar Council of Malaysia 

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