Looking beyond elections: Civil society, democracy and the ISA

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Change happens because ordinary people decide that they can no longer tolerate any action by the state that harms the greater common good, writes Christopher Chong.

No to detention without trial – Photo courtesy of reformisjalanan.blogspot.com

If we were to judge the health of democracy by the frequency of elections being held, then Malaysia would be in the best of health.

Since independence, elections have been held as scheduled without interruption – although local government elections were suspended in 1964 and then abolished in 1976. The Barisan Nasional (an enlargement of the original Alliance Party that consisted of Umno, MCA and MIC) has won every election since the nation was formed. The opposition parties have contested in all these elections.

As Rashid Rahman, the former Election Commission chairman, pointed out, Malaysia is a democracy because our leaders are elected and our elections “are free and fair” (The Star, 1 October 2011). However, as Francis Loh had argued, democracy is more than just elections. Ultimately, it should be about conscientisation and empowerment of the rakyat (‘Elections and democracy in Malaysia’, Aliran Monthly Vol.32 No.2). This then raises the question how do the rakyat become conscientised and empowered? I would argue that this happens when there is a vigorous civil society.

State of civil society

Democracy is more than just periodical elections. It also requires a vigorous civil society that acts as a counter to the state’s massive power. I define civil society as a space where the rakyat can gather to hold public discussions and debates on issues that affect them. In addition, this space allows people to organise themselves collectively to make representations to the state on issues that affect society.

Almost from the start, Malaysian civil society has been debilitated by the state through the enactment of various repressive laws. For example, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act make censorship a way of life in Malaysian society with the government dictating what the rakyat should know. This is made worse by the Sedition Act, under which self-censorship becomes part of the political culture because of the fear of being brought to book on charges of “acting” seditiously.

The Sedition Act defines sedition as anything which when “applied or used in respect of any act, speech, words, publication or other thing qualifies the act, speech, words, publication or other thing as having a seditious tendency”. The ambiguity of the wordings of the act makes it difficult to decide as to what is not “seditious” particularly on social and political issues (see ‘Finding the nation’s voice’ in Aliran Monthly Vol.31 No. 3).

Not only are the rakyat restricted as to what they can know and say regarding public issues, they are also restricted to what they can do with regards to making their concerns known to the government. The Police Act 1967 and its successor Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 empower the authorities to stop people from assembling in public – as a means to voice their dissent of government policies – if the former deemed it to be contrary to public security. It seems the authorities take a dim view of peaceful assemblies as witnessed by the Kuala Lumpur Bersih rallies in 2011 and 2012.

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In addition, repressive laws such as the Internal Security Act and the Emergency Ordinance, which empowered the authorities to detain individuals without trial, only added to this ominous atmosphere of silence.

Who can forget the infamous Ops Lalang episode? On 27 October 1987, the authorities detained 106 persons ranging from politicians to social activists under the Internal Security Act and revoked the publishing licences of two dailies, The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh, and two weeklies, the Sunday Star and Watan. All done in the name of preserving public peace but carrying with it an implicit threat that the government would not tolerate dissent.

Hampered by the state, civil society in Malaysia faces a constant struggle in its attempt to foster a participatory democracy where the voices and concerns of the people are brought to the government for action – unlike the current system where people’s participation begins and ends with elections.

Nonetheless, there have always been groups of like-minded people who have come together to form non-governmental organisations that seek to promote participatory democracy in the country. What is more important, such groups are usually multi-ethnic in orientation and avoid race-baiting which is the norm in the national political scene. Often they are the ones in the forefront in bringing to light issues that affect ordinary Malaysians through publications and workshops as well as mobilising the rakyat through petitions and civil protests.

We need look no further than the recent Bersih rallies that took place throughout the country. It was estimated that more than 100,000 people from different walks of life and ethnicities came together in a peaceful assembly in KL to demand electoral forms. The rally happened because the rakyat had become aware of the flagrant flaws in the electoral system and decided to do something about it despite the threat of the authorities using public security laws against them.

Can civil society bring changes?

Given the government’s almost unlimited political power and control of the media, what chance do ordinary Malaysians, have in bringing about changes? How can the rakyat stand up and voice its concerns to the government? Will the government even heed the voice of the rakyat? Indeed, there are some who despaired that change would ever come.

It is during troubling times like these that we need to look back into our history of the struggle to usher in more participatory democracy in the country. The struggle for change is never easy; neither can it happen within a short period. Yet, change can happen if ordinary Malaysians mobilise themselves to bring about change. Let’s consider the past persistent struggle to abolish the Internal Security Act.

This law had its roots in the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which was introduced by the British in 1948 to battle communist insurgency. The ordinance allowed the British to detain suspected communists without trial for up to one year. But in practice, it was applied not only to suspected communists but also to thousands of nationalists, including Malay activists such as Ahmad Boestamam and Pak Sako, who were outside the Umno fold.

Tragically, when Malaya was granted independence in 1957, the ordinance still remained in force. Shortly after independence, D R Seenivasagam (leader of the PPP) asserted in the Federal Legislative Council:

It is well known that the implementation of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance is a serious violation of basic human rights. We were told that some people have been labelled as “subversives”, “pro-communists”, “communist sympathisers” and so on … but if Chin Peng were to surrender unconditionally to the government, will the Emergency end? I dare say it will not. This is because the policy of the Alliance Government is to ensure the permanent existence of the Emergency (quoted in ‘Half-century-long ‘Abolish ISA’ struggle is vindicated’, Aliran Monthly, Vol.31 No.9).

As if to prove the stand of D R Seenivasagam wrong, the Alliance government decided to repeal the ordinance on 31 July 1960. But, the very next day, a Constitutional Amendment Bill was passed, giving birth to the Internal Security Act (ISA).

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The legendary opposition leader Tan Chee Khoon denounced the ISA as an “infernal and heinous instrument [that] has been enacted by the Alliance Government at a time when the emergency was supposed to be over. Then it promptly proceeds to embody all the regulations of the Emergency Regulations which during the Emergency had to be re-enacted every year, but now it is written in the statute book ad infinitum…”

In response to the criticism against the ISA, the first Internal Security Minister Ismail Abdul Rahman responded:

I maintained then and I maintain now the view that the Internal Security Act is essential to the security of this country especially when democracy is interpreted the way it is interpreted in this country. To those in opposition to the government, democracy is interpreted to mean absolute freedom, even the freedom to subvert the nation. When cornered by the argument that democracy in the Western sense means freedom in an ordered society and an ordered society is one in which the rule of law prevails, they seek refuge in the slogan that we should imitate Western democracy one hundred per cent.

I am convinced that the Internal Security Act as practised in Malaysia is not contrary to the fundamentals of democracy. Abuse of the Act can be prevented by vigilant public opinion via elections, a free Press and above all the Parliament.

Unfortunately, this confident assertion was misplaced as press freedom was corroded over time while public opinion and dissent was totally ignored , finally resulting in the arrests of critics and opposition leaders time and time again, including the infamous Ops Lalang in October 1987.

Struggle against the ISA

The introduction of the ISA was not accepted passively by civil society. As early as 1965, protesters were calling for the “Struggle for Human Rights” to oppose the arrest of Ahmad Boestamam under the act. The government acted predictably. The authorities arrested leaders from the opposition parties as well as 250 demonstrators.

Yet, such action did not deter members of civil society from protesting against this unjust act. In 1987 when opposition politicians, academicians and activists were arrested under the Internal Security Act, the rakyat took notice. Aliran, through its magazine, spread the message that such action was unjust. Later, new non-governmental organisations such as Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) and Persatuan Hak Asasi Manusia (Hakam) were formed to join in the struggle against human rights.

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During the reformasi era, Gerakan Keadilan Rakyat (Gerak), a coalition of opposition political parties and NGOs, was formed to campaign against unjust laws such as the ISA. By 1999, the government found itself on the defensive because of the increasingly vocal public concerns. As a result, the government formed Suhakam, the human rights commission of Malaysia, in an attempt to placate the rakyat. Gerak’s role was later taken over by the civil society Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (Abolish ISA movement) in 2001 when 10 of the reformasi activists were arrested.

The turning point in the struggle to abolish the ISA came when blogger Raja Petra and MP Teresa Kok were arrested, six months after the 2008 general elections. The arrests sparked an uproar among the rakyat: thousands of Malaysians all over the country attended candle-light vigils, wore abolish ISA badges and signed petitions.

Public opinion turned against the ISA and in August 2009, some 50,000 people thronged an abolish ISA rally in KL organised by GMI. Given the public intolerance of promises “to review” the ISA, the Prime Minister Najib Razak, on the eve of Malaysia Day 2011, announced the government’s plan to repeal not only the Internal Security Act but also the Emergency Ordinance and the Banishment Act while other security laws such as public assembly and publications would be eased.

Change? Yes, we can, but a long and winding road

The story of the struggle to abolish ISA shows that the collective action of the ordinary rakyat can make a difference. By supporting campaigns to “Abolish ISA” by way of holding candle-light vigils, signing petitions, wearing T-shirts and badges, participating in rallies and gatherings, we ultimately brought about an end to the ISA.

In the end, it shows that we, the rakyat, inspired by a vision of a just society, can transcend our differences to realise this vision. Ultimately, when ordinary Malaysians stand up to be counted, they can prevail against unjust acts by the state.

Change does not happen overnight. Neither can it happen if the rakyat believe they are powerless to bring about change. Change happens because ordinary people decided that they would not tolerate any action by the state that harms the greater common good. Change will come only when we collectively stand up and be counted to make our voices heard by the government even if it takes months, years and decades. In the end, change happens because the rakyat believe that they can bring about changes through collective action and are willing to struggle on until final victory.

As Howard Zinn, the American historian, noted in his book A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, “People, when organised, have enormous power, more than any government.”

He goes on to say, “History runs deep with the stories of people who stand up, speak out, dig in, organise, connect, form networks of resistance and alter the course of history.”

Dr Christopher Chong is an Aliran member. He teaches politics in a private university in KL.

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