Thinking Allowed: Putting the Small, Big and Alternative Pictures together

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Aliran president Francis Loh addressing the Aliran dinner in Penang

Francis Loh analyses current events, including the sedition crackdown, and explains that what is happening is an ongoing contestation behind New Politics and the reactionary Old Politics.

Aliran president Francis Loh addressing the Aliran dinner in Penang
Aliran president Francis Loh addressing the Aliran dinner in Penang

Aliran Dinner, 11 October 2014, Penang

Honoured guest, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, my dear fellow Malaysians.

First of all, I would like to thank all of you for being here – there are over 500 of you, some of you from out of town – Perak, the Klang Valley, even Johor and Sarawak!

Tonight, I want to share with you three important pictures: the Small Picture, the Big Picture and the Alternative Picture.

Small Picture

First the Small Picture that always directs our attention to focus on the controversy of the day, in this case, the Akta Hasutan.

Did you read what Nancy Shukri, minister in the PM’s department said about the Akta Hasutan in parliament, earlier (last) week?

Well, in response to a question from Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Opposition, she declared that Malaysia still needed the Act because “we do not have any other law to act against those who have the potential to threaten public order”. Malaysia needs a law, she said, “to prosecute those who instigate or spread hatred in the community” (theSun, 8 October 2014).

But look at who they have arrested, taken to Court and charged under the Sedition Act these past months? We know that the late Karpal Singh was charged and subsequently found guilty of sedition. Others who have been charged for sedition include Teresa Kok, Uthayakumar, Khalid Samad, R S N Rayer, Rafizi, David Orok, Tian Chua, N Surendran, and most recently, academicians Azmi Sharom and Aziz Bari. Aliran’s own Susan Loone, the Malaysiakini reporter, has also been charged with sedition while another Aliran member, Viktor Wong Hoi Cheng, has been charged under the Penal Code for a Twitter message he sent out.

All in all, Nancy Shukri revealed 20 people had been charged under the Akta Hasutan during the period 2013 to September 2014 (12 – 2014; 8 in 2013; between 2000 to 2012, only two). All those mentioned earlier are associated with the Opposition or are independent-minded academicians and intellectuals. As far as we know, only one other person outside this circle of critics has similarly been charged. And this is Abdullah Zaik, the president of Isma, who had condemned the Chinese in Malaysia as ‘intruders’.

Significantly, people like Ibrahim Ali, who had called for the seizure and the burning of Malay-language Bibles, have not been charged. Imagine, in a written reply to Lim Guan Eng in parliament, Nancy Shukri said that this was because “his statement was not meant to cause religious disharmony (kekecohan agama) but was only meant to defend the sanctity of Islam. Therefore the case was not prosecuted”.

Ibrahim Ali - Photograph: pribumiperkasa.com
Ibrahim Ali – Photograph: pribumiperkasa.com

Hullo! Are we talking about the same Ibrahim Ali? Are we talking about equality under the law?

The government has also stated that no action will be taken against the Federal Territory Umno Youth chief (Mohd Razlan Muhammad Rafii) for threatening to burn down the DAP headquarters.

Also, the police had stated that they would not investigate the PJ Utara Umno deputy division chief (Mohamad Azli Mohemed Saad) for sedition, although he had called for the closure of all vernacular schools.

The point to draw from this discussion is that there does not appear to be consistency in the application of the law, in this case, the Akta Hasutan. No wonder there has occurred among the rakyat a serious loss of confidence in those officials responsible for upholding the law, of seeking justice via our Courts and in the entire judicial system.

No doubt, we must campaign for the repeal of this anachronistic and unjust law, as the prime minister, earlier on, had promised to do. More than that, we should ensure that justice is accorded to all citizens, fairly and equally.

This is the small picture that we must carefully observe.

Big Picture

But we must also connect this Small to the Big picture to understand why this misuse of the Akta Hasutan is occurring. And why, now?

As a long-time student of politics in Malaysia, I observe a concerted and organised effort by certain individuals and groups to divide us, to prevent us from becoming a united people and nation, a community of fellow Malaysians caring for one another.

It is obvious that we are referring to individuals like Ibrahim Ali of Perkasa, Abdullah Zaik of Isma, and those awful people who crudely gathered in front of Datuk Ambiga’s house, to shake their butts, not so long ago. No doubt, they wish to continue dividing us along ethnic and religious lines.

But we are also pointing a finger at Umno-BN. Our observation is that they, too, wish to keep us divided. And why might that be so?

For me, this is related to Umno’s restrategising after GE13. It is extremely worried that the political tsunami that occurred has blown in a New Politics of Reformasi that transcends ethno-religious boundaries. If this wind of New Politics blows stronger, it will render Umno, an exclusivist and ethno-religious-based party, which is also crony-ridden, increasingly irrelevant! Its raison d’etre is lost!

In this Big Picture that I wish to paint, we see a struggle between Old Politics and New Politics. We must be clear about this.

new-politics-discourse-book

This New Politics has resulted in the virtual demise of the BN coalition, which performed poorly in the 2013 general elections. The BN polled fewer votes than the PR Opposition in GE13 and had to depend on its partners in Sabah and Sarawak, the so-called ‘fixed deposit’ states for the BN, to win a majority of seats in Parliament. Indeed, there is really no BN anymore, only Umno.

The writing was already on the wall with the arrival of Reformasi in 1998. So when Tun Abdullah Badawi took over as prime minister, he introduced various reforms within Umno-BN, as well as within his government, to stop the rot in his own party and government.

And what happened? Before you knew it, Abdullah was out!

Looking at the bigger picture, we observe that it was not only Abdullah who was removed; his attempts to reform Umno-BN, to make it more inclusive-minded, more CAT-like (competent, accountable and transparent), as the opposition later attempted to be in Penang and Selangor, to be more consultative – all his efforts were thrown out!

Put another way, the new Umno leadership had no choice but to reverse gear and to dig deeper into exclusivist ethno-religious Old Politics, back to Ketuanan Melayu, to chauvinistic and narrow notions of Islamisation. Some observers say that Umno has turned to reactionary fascist politics anchored in the three Rs – Race, Religion and Royalty. This was their way to regroup and to recoup their losses after the political tsunami.

It is in this regard that we connect the Big to the Small Pictures.

First, Umno-BN began to target the removal of PR leaders by taking them to court, viz, Anwar Ibrahim was once again taken to the courts; Karpal was charged and then found guilty of sedition; Mohd Sabu and Nizar Jamaluddin were charged with defamation, Nik Nazmi under the Peaceful Assembly Act, another under the new Sosma.
Above all, as we discussed earlier, this Umno-BN government began to use the Sedition Act to arrest and to charge people.

Second, perhaps less obvious to most of us, Umno’s restrategising required the breaking up of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR). More than this, it called for the breaking up of Pas too in order for Umno to recover its electoral losses.

And how else to break these two parties than by pushing for a more exclusivist political agenda based on Ketuanan Melayu on the one hand and for more exclusivist narrow Islamist policies on the other!
You will recall, earlier this year, there was much controversy not only regarding the use of kalimah Allah, but also a desire to push for the introduction of hudud laws in Kelantan.

It was (Jamil Khir Baharom) the minister in the prime minister’s department in charge of Islamic affairs who perhaps kickstarted this process when he announced that he would support an amendment to the Penal Code to allow for the implementation of hudud laws. Later, Deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin followed up by visiting Nik Aziz and announced the setting up of a joint federal-state technical committee to look into the implementation of hudud.

During that period, Umno’s mouthpiece, Utusan Malaysia, carried endless articles daily – by Umno and Pas leaders and Muslim NGOs like Perkasa, Isma and Martabat Jalinan Muhibbah Malaysia – calling for Umno-Pas cooperation to introduce the hudud bills. It was a concerted effort to drive a wedge into Pas and to break up Pakatan. (I would also locate the small picture of the recent Selangor imbroglio or circus in this Big Picture of how Umno was restrategising).

Yes, due to this restrategising by Umno, by the active promotion of Old Politics, differences within Pas and among the three Pakatan parties have been exacerbated, no doubt about that.

But the incredible thing about the PR is that it has lasted this long!

Alas, the PR began to forget that it was only a ‘work in progress’. It needed to consolidate itself which it ignored doing or didn’t do enough. Yet, if it is going to be an alternative government, its component parties must consult and debate with one another more; give and take more; curb individual party ambitions to achieve more common ground.

And of course, consult the rakyat too.

By not thrashing out their differences, by not recognising that they were only a ‘work in progress’, they made themselves vulnerable to Umno’s manipulations. In this regard, the rakyat have been disappointed.

The Alternative Picture

Third, I want to end this discussion on a positive note, and to look at an Alternative Picture, one that announces that we are on the threshold of a New Politics. I say this fully aware that discriminatory laws and policies are still in place, and that Umno is promoting this exclusivist Old Politics based on Ketuanan Melayu, the politics of 3Rs, etc.

But I stress that the caustic and shrill voices of Perkasa, Perkida, Iman, Martabat, and of Dr M, the born-again advocate of Ketuanan Melayu, belie the fact that their notion of an exclusivist Malaysia is on the decline.
How so?

We cannot forget that some 51 per cent of the electorate voted for change in GE13 on 5 May 2013. I remain optimistic even with the unfolding of the Selangor crisis.

This is because the arrival of New Politics is not to be measured by simply referring to electoral results and the formal political process.

For globalisation has caught up with Malaysia. The Malaysian economy and society has also been transformed as never before.

Malaysia’s educated, globally connected middle-class has been estimated at perhaps 40 per cent of the population today. This growth and consolidation of the middle class was due to the rapid economic growth which has taken place over the last 30-40 years. And because of the implementation of the NEP, the second prong of which sought to restructure society such that race would no longer be associated with occupation, this middle-class is represented by all ethnic groups.

In turn, this middle class has had an impact on our hitherto ethnic-based politics in new ways: it has formed new cause-oriented NGOs like the women’s groups, environmental groups, human rights groups and radicalised our performing arts, IPs, etc.

Our economy has transformed. Our society has been restructured. Surely, our politics too has begun to move from Old Politics to New Politics?

Specifically, we can refer to how civil society organisations led by Dato’ Ambiga and Pak Samad were able to sustain the Bersih and Bersih 2.0 movement for several years. During the Duduk Bantah weekend in Penang, Aliran successfully organised a gathering of some 10,000 people in the Esplanade, the largest number of people who have been brought together to attend an Aliran-organised event!

Bersih 2.0 and Duduk Bantah 3.0 were very multi-ethnic mass rallies
Bersih 2.0 and Duduk Bantah 3.0 were very multi-ethnic mass rallies

And here you are tonight, to support our struggle for Justice, Freedom and Solidarity again.

My optimism is further strengthened because I see young people of all ethno-religious backgrounds beginning to engage in politics in new ways, not least through the social media.

It is in this regard that I envision an emerging struggle, not between Umno-BN and Pakatan per se, but between this New Politics, which calls for more CAT-like government and the crossing of ethno-religious boundaries, and the horrible Old Politics characterised by racism, cronyism and widening socio-economic disparities, nowadays especially pronounced within each ethnic group. And our youth see this clearly, perhaps more so than we do!

Having a strong opposition coalition like Pakatan Rakyat does not necessarily usher in New Politics. Like I said, it is only a ‘work in progess’.

But, no doubt, a change of government in Putrajaya will usher in a two-party system, and in turn, facilitate more responsible, more responsive and CAT-like governments, regardless of who is in power.

Most important of all, such a two-party system, one might say a normal democracy, will allow for the consolidation and expansion of the autonomous public sphere, the space that falls outside the control of the government, the political parties, the foreign and local capitalist-dominated private sector.

It is a space for civil society groups like Aliran to thrive – to have its say, to spread alternative ideas about participatory democracy and sustainable development with equity, for us to spread cooperation with others of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, to celebrate our differences! It is still a dream, but it is in our

In conclusion, we in Aliran always try to relate our Small Picture of current concerns to the Big Picture of structural changes. But always, we also have in view that Alternative Picture.

Fellow Malaysians, I thank you for your attention. Thank you for coming and for your generous donations. Please enjoy your dinner and the rest of the evening!

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Tan Liok Ee
Tan Liok Ee

Well written!