Dissenters, critics, whistle blowers and ‘prophets of doom’ are essential cornerstones for building an accountable and just democracy, observes Angeline Loh.
Public perception of NGOs such as Aliran, I’m told is, that they are too opposition supportive. That superficial popular perspective is probably because such organisations and individuals linked to them frequently speak out when they perceive inequality and injustice by the establishment’s machinery against the frequently suppressed political opposition or marginalised communities.
This popular perception, held for 30 odd-years by pro-establishment organisations and individuals, comes as no surprise when Aliran and like-minded organisations have for a similar time span remained independent and critical of ruling party politics and policies. Such policies have in the long run created an epidemic of corruption, destruction of the rule of law and a growing incidence of violence on civilians by security enforcement bodies.
Would 8 March 2008 have been a landmark election year had these “prophets of doom”, dissenters and critics not taken the responsibility of voicing their concerns about the existing system and demanded change for the good of all Malaysians? Would people realise the discrepancies and injustices committed in secret if the mainstream media remain cowed into disseminating half-truths or outright propaganda? The mainstream media have frequently, conveniently neglected their duty to report truthfully things deemed unfavourable to the establishment through news blackouts and self-censorship amongst other things.
Fortunately, we have been saved from becoming completely reliant on submissive and near sycophantic media through advances in information technology, increasing the potential for democracy in this country. If not for the online critical discussion and exercise of freedom of expression in cyber space, more Malaysians would be blindly supporting a virtually totalitarian government in feudal subservience and submissiveness. Is this what Malaysians want?
The answer is obvious from the results of the 8 March 2008 election ‘tsunami’, the Permatang Pauh by-election that put PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim back in Parliament, and the recent Kuala Terengganu by-election victory for Pakatan Rakyat.
Yet those undecided as to their stance still bemoan in apparent ‘righteous indignation’ the fact of criticism of the ruling party and the workings of administration as anti-social and unhealthy for the country. Why is this so, when at the same time they continue to enjoy the gains of democracy and greater freedom that a number of them have made no effort to bring about much less bothered to support in the past? Such chameleon-like unscrupulousness and immorality is the real danger to democracy, not the critics, dissenters or the “prophets of doom”.
Those inclined to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds at the same time, serve to distort the concept of democracy by demeaning the necessity for checks and balances to sustain a healthy democratic political environment anchored to a foundation of justice and fairness.
Malaysians wanted change and they got it. Do we realise what we are asking for and the implications of it? More importantly, do we know why we want change or what the requirements of a just democracy are?
“Dalam belenggu kejahilan” (In the shackles of ignorance)
For the past 51 years or so, what have Malaysians in general learned about democracy when we have been living within a pseudo-democracy? Education, in our experience, has been modelled on a factory production line where absorbing wholesale and ‘regurgitating’ a vast amount of what we have learnt by rote is thought to be the right way to learn. We have never been taught to examine critically the knowledge we absorb. So, what exactly have we learnt?
Our authorities have taught us that it is wrong to be different in character or hold a different opinion from what they have approved and hold as true. In short, we have been inculcated with the inability to question existing conservative structures, even if they are unjust and violate our constitutional and human rights.
We have also lived in mute acceptance of prejudice and injustice against marginalised people and those with the courage to defend them. We live in fear of being punished, ostracised and imprisoned for shouting out against such immoral oppression.
We have been fed with conservative and extreme ideas and half truths by media controlled by repressive laws and rendered subservient to the powers that be. The double standards practised go unchallenged by a majority of us, in mute or grumbling acceptance. By this, we surrender control of our lives to the political whims and fancies of those in power.
The powers that be tell us that to have a voice is to assimilate alien culture; therefore the people should remain dumb. It is un-Malaysian to be open about our discontent when practices, policies and laws increase our suffering and make the standards and quality of our lives worse than before. When we are on the brink of starvation and deprivation, are we expected to remain silently approving of the increased prosperity of the wealthy and powerful at our expense?
Our life experience as citizens of this country is not one of democracy but of feudal serfdom and traditional autocracy. We do not know what living in a democracy is; all we have learnt is that such ideals are mere facades to please the outside world.
What then is democracy? How does one live in a democracy?
March 8/08 – a rebellion or revolution?
Condemnation of dissent has become an accepted reaction. Many would express uneasiness (even if secretly agreeing) with any idea they think will attract adverse attention or disrupt the status quo, no matter how realistic, logical or just. In a devious way, dissent or criticism is interpreted as a personal affront, especially in traditional conservative thinking that is inevitably authoritarian in character. Consciously or not, the herd mentality kicks in to preserve the status quo and kill potential change.
This apparent need for status quo preservation and perpetuation reveals a deep-seated fear of change. The change-agent, the critics and ‘prophets of doom’ are held up as the evil ones who should be made an example of. The whistle-blowers should be silenced, if necessary. These threaten not only the status quo but also the vested interests of those clinging to the reins of power founded on a network of cronies and corruption.
We have taken the first step towards change; but is this enough? Still tipsy from our new found ‘people’s power’, we are yet unclear what shape our democracy will take. There seem to be no definite guidelines or definitions as to what democracy is in the Malaysian context. Some appear to believe that having the right to freedom within a democracy is licence to act irresponsibly or illegally without consideration of the rights of other human beings in society. Democracy is equated with anarchy.
This appears to be the perception of democracy promoted by the current federal administration to justify repressive measures and police brutality against defenceless citizens. It is an excuse to curtail freedom of expression, assembly and basic human rights that others living in more democratic societies enjoy as of right.
If Malaysians continue to hope for external redemption and fail to see the need to realise their own inner strengths, weaknesses and powers to create an accountable and responsible democracy, March 8/08 was only a reactionary rebellion, not a revolution.
Conversely, if March 8/08 is to be a true turning point, then the catalysts for change are necessary. We have to question ourselves and weigh the arguments advocated by the critics, dissenters, ‘whistle blowers’ and ‘doom mongers’ who have all this while demanded the attention we have been too wary to give them.
The fear of dissenters and critics has become second nature to most Malaysians. We may boast our apparent liberalism and multi-racialism, yet deep down do we truly believe that boast? Is Malaysian society prepared to be truly multi-racial and equal? Only those who have tested the water can tell how hot it is.
If not for the dissenters, critics and ‘doom’ mongers, March 8/08 and all other system changes in the world would never have happened. The world would still be as it was millennia ago where only the strong and powerful would thrive by exploitation and subjugation of the weakest and poorest in society. Terror would reign unchallenged and unchecked.
Cornerstones of a democracy
The ‘March 8/08 Peoples’ Ballot Declaration for Change’ is a blessing in disguise and an opportunity for us to review our perspectives and perceptions of the society we live in and want to see in future. It is time to widen our knowledge, examine our options, including those proposed by the dissenters and critics that were condemned in the past by the establishment as subversive, unconventional and an alleged threat to those in power.
The electorate need to educate themselves to become less driven by popular emotion and blind herd mentality. We have to achieve the capacity for critical thinking and reasoning, and above all, honesty with ourselves. We must realise that our politics is driven by us, the People, with the political will and determination to achieve our goals, not by overlords and managers whom we appoint. The consequences of over-lordship, we know well by experience. We should stop hoping to be saved by external forces. The capacity for self-determination is within us.
Thus, the dissenters, critics, whistle blowers and ‘prophets of doom’ are essential cornerstones for building an inherently responsible, accountable, transparent, and just democracy. The importance of these agents of change should not be under-estimated nor diminished, as it is they who are the nation’s alarm system when inequality and injustice arise or things go wrong in society’s body politic. They maintain our society’s equilibrium by their advocacy. Without them, democracy and justice cannot exist.
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