The change we seek should be holistic and substantive and reflective of the collective needs and hopes of a diverse, independent populace, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
The day of Independence that falls on 31 August every year, which is particularly associated with Peninsular Malaysia, is indeed a time for us to rejoice as it marks an important departure from a collective past that was riddled with colonial rule, political and economic interference and crass exploitation of labour and natural resources.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that the national flag, or the Jalur Gemilang as it is christened now, which replaced the Union Jack in 1957, serves as an important political symbol for the government (and the rakyat) to the extent that as many people as possible, be they government servants, business people and civilians, are exhorted to hoist this piece of cloth in government buildings, business premises and at home as well as on vehicles.
In a sense, flying the flag proudly is the human equivalent of wearing patriotism on your sleeve.
But there are obviously more ways than merely flying the flag when it comes to demonstrating patriotism and pride of political independence on the part of the people. It ranges from physically fighting and protecting the sovereignty of the country against the enemy to waging a war against corruption and voicing dissenting views.
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While we are encouraged to celebrate this momentous occasion for the generally good life that many of us have since enjoyed — such as relative peace and general socio-economic development — it would also be valuable for us to assess critically what we especially have not achieved, or obtained inadequately, since gaining independence from the British for the last 59 years. To identify and appreciate the weaknesses in our society is also an indication of our concern and love for this country.
Let’s focus on three areas of concern, among other important things in Malaysia:
Firstly, human rights. We must be reminded that one of the reasons we fought for political independence is that we wanted to be free from the colonial yoke, i.e. restrictive laws that were introduced and employed by the British, such as the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses Act and the Official Secrets Act, which collectively curtailed civil liberties and impeded the development of democracy.
And yet, the federal government still maintains and, in certain cases, has further tightened these laws since independence.
Additionally, media freedom, which is a hallmark of a healthy democracy, has been compromised given the current political economy of the mainstream media.
It gives the impression that the ruling politicians — who supposedly represent the interests of the ordinary people — don’t have to be accountable and are immune to public criticism as exemplified by the humongous 1MDB scandal, an elephant in the room which the powers that be refuse to address sufficiently.
This necessity to be accountable and transparent obviously applies to all governments from both sides of the political divide in the country.
It is also unfortunate that the progress we have made in certain areas of human rights have been rolled back in recent years. For instance, the internet, which is supposed to be free of censorship and a vital public domain for those who seek freedom of information and expression, has seen increasing state intervention in recent years.
The draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) — which was repealed in 2012 — has been replaced by the Special Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) 2012 that allows for detention without trial, while the Sedition Act has been employed more aggressively in recent years as a tool to muzzle valid criticism of the government.
The National Security Council Act, which was hurriedly passed recently, is another political creature to watch out for.
Non-state actors, too, have got into the act of exercising censorship. You’ve got an unruly mob, usually aligned or friendly to the ruling party, that threatens other groups that it opposes ideologically and politically to the point of creating unnecessary tension in society. It is disturbing that such a group apparently is incapable of engaging in a civilised conversation or intelligent dialogue.
Much of these imposed constraints are to some degree due to the undue ‘sensitivity’ of certain quarters so that even a political satire can go awry and be subjected to censorship of sorts. Malaysians need to chill.
These legal and political manoeuvres certainly fall below the expectations of most citizens of this independent nation, where justice and freedom of expression and of information should have been given priority and iron-clad protection.
A sense of belonging to this “imagined community” could be enhanced if and when citizens exercise their democratic right to express views, including dissenting opinions.
It doesn’t help when we have such weak and less independent democratic institutions such as the judiciary and the media to serve the interests of the populace, particularly the weak and the marginalised.
Secondly, intra- and inter-ethnic and religious tension. In a society like ours where there are diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups, no respect and appreciation for differences, which is a recipe for an eventual cultural and political meltdown, has reared its ugly head more often than we can count on our fingers.
Similarly, differences are frowned upon within an ethnic community, particularly the Malay-Muslim group, so that only one ‘official’ version of Islam and ‘Malay-ness’ is deemed correct and cannot be questioned. In this context, a ‘different’ person is likely to be called “deviant”, if not “traitor”, which is a denigrating and alienating label.
This phenomenon has been brought about over the years largely by ethnic bigotry and religious extremism that have been spawned by competing political parties whose raison d’etre is to champion the narrow interests of their respective communities. Umno Baru and Pas, in particular, have committed this cardinal sin.
In this political intrigue, the public is often given the impression that, for example, the Islamic faith of the Malays is so brittle that the sight of a cross or even the physique of singer Selena Gomez could blow them away. If this is true, then the many years of Islamic teachings and indoctrination must have come to nought — and requires urgent reassessment and redress.
To a large extent, the insecurity amongst many Malays has been manufactured and manipulated for political expediency; if the ‘Malay community’ is not threatened by the ethnic Chinese, they must be stalked by foreigners like the Americans.
This is indeed a strange way of instilling confidence among Malays and of according them their dignity after all these years, i.e. if the self-confidence and dignity of the Malays is considered precious at all.
Thirdly, intellectual development, or the lack thereof. A government of an independent nation should encourage intellectual flowering and liberation through public discourse, writings and dialogue. And yet over the years, we have seen increasing state censorship of materials and even public meetings that it considers capable of “disrupting peace and harmony”, whatever that means.
As of March 2016, for instance, some 1,593 publications, which include books, magazines, newspapers, and brochures, have been banned by the government in this age of the internet. The banned materials cover subjects which range from sex, religion to politics.
There appears to be an unwillingness to engage dissenting voices in intellectual discourse as we might find in, say, the Indonesian context. From the politicians, the religious bureaucrats to the unruly mob, banning reading materials or contentious events seems to be their favourite but lazy ‘remedy’.
As regards censorship, it appears that reading material in the national language gets to be banned by the state much more easily than, say, that in the English language.
This has at least two implications: one, those who only have proficiency in the Malay language will not have access to material in other languages, thereby limiting their scope of knowledge and worldview — and hence, keeping them locked in their own cocoons.
Two, censorship of this nature, coupled with the ban on non-Muslim usage of certain Arabic-related terms, stifles the vibrant use of the national language so that it becomes a reluctant language through which ideas and intellectuals can meet — and, consequently, not many would want to claim ownership of this language.
National independence is not merely about a change of political actors, i.e. from the colonial masters to the national leaders. The change should be holistic and substantive and reflective of the collective needs and hopes of the diverse, independent populace.
To be sure, these concerns are not new, but it would help to remind ourselves to reflect on them especially on Merdeka Day. Besides, they’re still staring at our faces after all these years primarily because they have not been addressed adequately, if at all, by the people concerned.
The “cheap sales” that often accompany the yearly Merdeka celebration in shopping malls, apart from the flag-flying, should not drown out these and other pertinent concerns.