Privacy and our political culture

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Defending the private lives and private spaces of our politicians is part and parcel of the process to regain and defend the private domain of all Malaysians, where we may live, love, pray, hope and strive for the betterment of ourselves and the fulfilment of our destinies in peace. It is that fundamental right that entitles us to be what we are, says Farish A Noor. No human being should be denied that privacy for the loss of that privacy entails the loss of something greater: the loss of the right simply to be what we are. The entire democratic process and democratic endeavour rests on that.

Politics, we must remember, is something that takes place in the public domain. And it is in that public domain that politicians are judged for their actions, good and bad, right and wrong. The worth of a politician and his/her standing depends entirely on his/her conduct in the execution of the responsibilities that have been entrusted upon them by the public who voted them into office. And if they fail in the execution of those duties, then we the public have every justifiable right to demand an explanation from them. In the final analysis, it is we the public who determine the fate of the politicians we elect to represent us, and never vice-versa.

Politics, however, has its limits and the frontier of the political ends where the private domain begins. Politicians are human beings and it would be the mistake of the public to assume and expect our politicians to behave in a manner that is extraordinary by public standards. For that simple reason the public also has no right to expect politicians to be and remain politicians every hour, every day and every year of their lives; for politicians too have every right to be human and to have the privacy that we expect for ourselves. In the same way that we hope and wish that our elected representatives will defend the privacy of our lives, so should we extend that very same right to them, for they too are ultimately citizens like the rest of us.

It is therefore sad, to say the least, that the level of Malaysian politics and political culture has descended to a new low with the latest revelation of yet another sex scandal that involves a democratically elected state assemblywoman serving in the state government of Selangor, Ms Elizabeth Wong. This comes not too long after another sordid scandal involving another politician – Chua Soi Lek – who was likewise scandalised by revelations of his private life being made public. In both cases one can only assume that the motivation behind this intrusion into the private domain was political in nature.

Much has already been written about the two cases and the facts remain unclear over what actually happened in the case of the unfortunate Ms Wong, so I will not dwell upon that here.

My contention however is this: When will we Malaysians come to understand and accept the fact that living in a modern plural constitutional democracy means having to respect the private space and private lives of all citizens, be they politicians or shopkeepers? Political motivations aside, the core of the matter is that another Malaysian citizen has had her private space intruded into and has been personally violated in the most abusive and despicable manner. This is something that no-one should relish, not even for the worst of our enemies. When it happens to a politician whose commitment to democracy and human rights is well known to all, then our sense of moral outrage should be all the greater.

Let us remind ourselves of the simple fact that the private lives of the victims in question have been without any taint whatsoever. Ms Wong is an adult woman who is capable of making decisions and choices of her own, and like any of us she is entitled to live her private life in the manner she sees fit. No crime has been committed, no public funds embezzled, no state secrets revealed and no Mongolian models blown to bits. The pathetic demonstration of moral outrage on the part of some conservative quarters should therefore be exposed for what it is: an instance of gross hypocrisy and double-standards at their most vile.

In the wake of the elections of March 2008, Malaysian society has demonstrated our desire for change, and for a new politics that befits and mirrors the new Malaysia we live in. This was the clearest call ever for a new political culture where feudalism, corruption, nepotism, hypocrisy and double standards are done away with once and for all. We are sick and tired of the vacuous moral claims of those who speak of morality and religion on the one hand, while robbing the state and eroding our fundamental human rights at the same time.

Defending the private lives and private spaces of our politicians is therefore part and parcel of the process to regain and defend the private domain of all Malaysians, where we may live, love, pray, hope and strive for the betterment of ourselves and the fulfilment of our destinies in peace. It is that fundamental right that entitles us to be what we are. No human being should be denied that privacy for the loss of that privacy entails the loss of something greater: the loss of the right simply to be what we are. The entire democratic process and democratic endeavour rests on that.

For now however, it is our moral obligation to rally in support for a fellow Malaysian whose right to privacy has been violated. Let us not be indecisive here, for we clearly know who has been the victim. For those whose lives have been violated thus, one can only imagine the personal anguish they must be going through.

History books tell us that when King Charles the First faced his penultimate judgement, he was robbed of all his rights and dignity. King Charles was known to be a man who stuttered and faltered whenever he spoke; but at that defining moment of his life when his very existence was at stake, he delivered what was said to be the most eloquent speeches he ever gave; which til today ranks as one of the most beautiful and elegant pieces of prose in the English language.

Each and every one of us will sooner or later face such a defining moment in our lives, when our mettle will be tested and when we will finally realise who and what we are and what resources we possess. Perhaps this is the defining moment for Ms Wong. We hope that she will meet this challenge with the dignity that she possesses, and emerge stronger. So chin up, Elizabeth; and keep a smile on your face. Don’t let the detractors get you down. The struggle for a better Malaysia has just begun, and there is still a long road ahead.

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