It is often out of expected returns instead of desperation that our people turn to violence, observes Nicholas Chan.
In the first Captain America movie, Cap mentioned his only reason in wanting to fight the Nazis is that he doesn’t like bullies.
That itself is a salient point. From the groups of students who cornered their counterparts in the school toilet to racketeering gangs; from the violent mobs in front of Low Yat (and recently in Kota Raya) to the paramilitary Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of India; and from the murderous monks in Burma to the Isis terrorists, they are all essentially bullies.
In simpler terms, they use force and coercion to get what they want, instead of negotiations and evidence to try and convince other parties of the utility of their prepositions.
The fact that practices of bullying can be so pervasive in a democracy like Malaysia (or some would say, an illiberal democracy) deserves a special look. After all, elements within a democracy, such as the rule of law and the protection of democratic rights, should have discouraged the use of force.
The aversion towards the use of force by and on citizens is what allows the Weberian state to monopolise it in the first place.
As it is unfortunate that sometimes the use of force has to be regulated through force (via the police or the army), the process is balanced by the rule of law, and the institutions safeguarding it, such as the judiciary.
We talk a lot about the social contract in Malaysia, but most of us forget about this social contract: that we surrender our freedom to use force (except under dire circumstances such as self-defence) so that we can be protected from the extrajudicial use of it.
Even when the government uses force, there are mechanisms and stipulations to guide the exercise.
Therefore, under such circumstances, if the use of force by citizens remains appealing, it says a lot about our democracy.
As democracy is fundamentally rules-based, the use of arbitrary force relegates those rules to non-existence. And if rules can be neglected, rewritten, and bent at will, there is no rule of law to begin with.
This is why the breakdown of rule of law often coincides with violence, as one can see it in war zones like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, or in specific regions in Mexico, Honduras or South Africa, where crime rates are shooting through the roof.
However, we should not assume that in every case it is the limits of law enforcement or weak governance that causes violence to spread.
In settings of authoritarianism, where governments exert significant control over its population, violence often comes as a by-product.
This is because in order to exert totalitarian control over its population, the use of uniformed bodies is never enough. The curtailing of actions requires the curtailing of minds, and the curtailing of minds requires the curtailing of ideas and speech.
Citizens are often led to turn on each other so that these “limits” are not breached, typically aroused by empty rhetoric of race or religion.
Sophie Lemiere’s instrumental study on Pekida revealed how a regime does not simply monopolises violence, but it shares it with agents of violence through tacit sanctioning, symbolic acquaintance (which is why you have leaders saying we need silat groups to protect the motherland even though there is the police and army), and patronage funding.
In such circumstances, the law has to be put aside so that violence of a certain degree is tolerated.
An authoritarian regime differentiates itself from a democratic regime not because it monopolises the means of violence (theoretically speaking, all functioning states do), but it monopolises the legitimacy of violence. The regime, instead of the law, determines what “kind” of violence is allowed and what kind is not.
Examples in South East Asia are manifold. The “close-one-eye” syndrome (or both, actually) of the Myanmar government towards the pogrom of the Rohingyas is too hard to miss.
The incarnation of Komando Jihad in the mid-1970s is an engineering of the Suharto regime to find an excuse to crackdown on the Islamists.
For examples closer to home, we have the trespassing of the Penang state assembly, a lawmaking institution, mind you, in 2014, being committed with minimal consequences.
A show of force in front of Low Yat Plaza is rewarded with an ethno-protectionist digital mall, and many more to come.
The thing is, many ethno-nationalists or religious demagogues are no different from your usual school bullies. They pander to the channels of force because it allows them benefits – or the non-questioning of their benefits.
After all, a bully’s mentality isn’t about who is right (which is antithetical to how the law functions, at least as far as just laws are concerned) but about who can exercise power and then take advantage of the resultant power differentials.
The authoritarian regime might think it is okay to pretend once in a while to be taken hostage by these groups to further its own interests, but they often unknowingly foster a culture where violence or the threat of violence is welcomed.
Invariably, the state’s power and legitimacy will be eroded in the process.
State-sanctioned groups will turn against the state when they realise the regime shares the burden of violence with them but does not do so with regard to its resources.
Not only that, because the room for peaceful championing of rights or ideologies becomes small and unattractive, some groups may turn to violence to coerce the state, considering experiences where extrajudicial violence actually produced returns.
The political culture aside, as a society, we need to also caution ourselves from subjugating to the allure of force because it is appealing in our context of having a high power-distance culture (highest in the world according to one research), where hierarchy is not only endorsed, but also internalised.
This might explain why detestable hazing rituals during a university’s orientation week became self-perpetuating. Freshmen who were subjected to harassment and bullying by their seniors (which also serves as a way to introduce the newcomers to the established hierarchy) will gladly be the bullies themselves when they become seniors.
I do not buy into this “amok” culture rationalisation of violence, because our multiple large-scale rallies have shown that we can demonstrate peacefully without rioting.
The thing is, bullies will always be there if opportunity structures are present. In our country, as I observed it, it is often out of expected returns instead of desperation that our people turn to violence.
To those bullies, may I dare say, may the force not be with you.
Source: The Malaysian Insider