Imagine, MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj arrested, released, detained without trial and then released again and now having to face charges. How can it be? James V Jesudason describes this politician with a passion for justice.
I write with great concern over the incarceration of Sungai Siput parliamentarian Dr Michael D Jeyakumar, or Kumar, under the Emergency Ordinance. (Kumar and his five colleagues were released on 29 June, after 34 days of detention.) It is mystifying to me how the authorities can construe Kumar’s commitments and political activities as either waging war against the Agong or subverting the nation.
What has become of the Malaysian power structure that such an individual, widely seen as brilliant and deeply caring, can be so cynically arrested by using the bogeyman of communism? As an old friend, it is equally worrisome to hear that he has been admitted to the National Heart Institute (IJN), with the possible harm to his health brought about by this outrageous action.
Kumar and I go back a long way. There is a family picture of him and me when we were one year old, but I do not remember the encounter. We became friends in Penang Free School, where Kumar spent more time in community and educational projects than in class, though still managing to become the top student in our school.
After the Higher School Certificate exam (HSC) in 1973, we travelled together for two months in India. I wished to be far away from home when my HSC results came out and Kumar wanted to understand why so many people were poor in India.
Later both of us went to the United States to study, he at Yale and I nearby at Wesleyan. To my surprise, but totally consistent with his desire to lead a socially meaningful life, Kumar decided to return to Malaysia to do medicine as this would enable him to understand and serve his fellow beings, especially the weak and marginalised, better.
Although I would be based mainly in Singapore and the US subsequently, I would meet Kumar from time to time and learn of his political and community service activities and his thinking on Malaysian society.
Much has been said already in Malaysiakini and elsewhere about Kumar’s amazing range of public health and social projects, so I need not be redundant.
All I wish to say is that in all the time I have known Kumar, I have never seen any violent streak in his person, he being constitutionally incapable of such behaviour. And being a very gentle person, he is averse to forcing his ideas on anyone or to act against basic democratic norms. He has been an enabler all his life, not a subverter.
So let’s get a few facts straight. Kumar is a self-avowed socialist and is totally transparent about it. He is suspicious of the profit motive, believes that rampant capitalism has led to environmental disaster and sees a moral link between capitalism and selfish behaviour in society.
He believes that in many contexts, such as in Malaysia, the capitalist system can by-pass the needs of poor communities. He would like to see a more equal society. That entails not sitting by and idly wishing for it or just talking intellectually about it, but actually working to ensure that the poor are organised and have strong leverage in society.
Kumar might have a dream of more equality and a less materialistic life, but it is not a violent dream. It is not a dream that denies religion and/or the value of democratic processes. In the meantime, he and his colleagues are serving the poor in meaningful ways, though constrained by available resources, and groups across ethnic lines have approached them for help.
No decent society arrests such an individual. And from my viewpoint, it can in fact be argued that increasing the social power of the marginalised and weaker segments of society is not just a matter of justice, but is necessary for a productive and progressive capitalism.
For example, in European social democracy, high productivity capitalism coincides with enormous social sharing and low corruption. This system, which I admire, has been underpinned by the strong mobilisation and representation of the working and subordinate classes in politics.
It did not come about from the top-down favours bestowed by the elite, but from the increased social power of the lower classes, through unionisation and political mobilisation, which forced capitalism to be more equitable and, ironically, very dynamic as well. Here’s where Adam Smith, the proponent of free markets, meets Karl Marx, the proponent of a socialised economy.
There is nothing alarming in this formulation. It’s just conventional social science. One can disagree with Kumar’s socialist ideas, but the point is to engage him, debate with him, or to challenge him by providing an even better deal for his party’s would-be supporters. But to arrest him?
Either the authorities do not understand the basic logic of how societies work or they actually want to block a more moral form of capitalism from taking root.
This leads me to another deep worry. I used to write and lecture on Malaysia, arguing that its governance system was able to survive for a long time because of its flexibility.
I called the Malaysian system a “syncretic state” – by which I meant the regime was able to balance capitalism and a decent deal for the weaker sectors, democracy with selective coercion, secularism with religious identity, and nationalism with controlled ethnic mobilisation.
I fear that over time, politics in Malaysia has taken on more predatorial features. Political power is sought to serve narrow self-interests, whose maintenance has resulted in the undermining of institutions. The negative side of the balance is becoming dangerously entrenched. Coercion becomes the easy recourse to political challenges.
Unheard of levels of ethnic and religious brinkmanship become acceptable as a means to maintain power. How much easier to mobilise group emotions on the basis of perceived and concocted threats than to deliver tangible benefits or a high-skilled economy?
And amidst growing alienation, the regime finds itself widening the circle of subversives – it’s no more real threats such as communist insurgents or Islamic terrorists who become targets, but now democratic activists and educated professionals are seen as a danger to society.
This unhealthy milieu has even alienated some of my outstanding Malay students, who are having second thoughts about returning to Malaysia.
There comes a time, in the interest of the nation, for political leaders to understand that social forces and ideas in society have gone beyond the framework imposed by them. Preserving the status quo imposes huge costs on society and tears it apart.
The Singapore government, for example, which used to claim that only its leaders represented rationality and intelligence, leading to much political alienation, have now faced up to the fact that there are many smart people in society with valid ideas who have to be listened to.
In Malaysia, there are now many multiracial coalitions standing for universal principles of freedom and tolerance. There are capable people willing to be MPs and state assembly members who don’t seek anything more in office other than their official salary to serve the rakyat. And opposition parties are proving that they can run society quite well, certainly no worse than Barisan Nasional.
These are developments which any true nationalist would celebrate. Kumar’s arrest represents a long process of institutional decay and the narrowing of political vision in Malaysia. It is a blatant sign of the inability of the regime to engage with ongoing changes in society or to reform itself.
Recent government actions have undermined all past efforts to make the country look good in the eyes of the world. My Middle Eastern Muslim colleagues and friends think it is laughable when the word ‘Allah’ cannot be used by Christians in Malaysia. And what if I tell them now that yellow shirts are banned in Malaysia? Even Queen Elizabeth would turn to yellow.
Enough is enough. Let’s get on with building a real knowledge-based society that is tolerant of a broad variety of ideas in society. The government can take the first step toward reform by releasing Kumar and his colleagues.
James V Jesudason has a PhD in Sociology from Harvard University and has written broadly on Malaysian politics and economics. He is currently Teaching Professor at the Colorado School of Mines, having previously taught at the National University of Singapore.