People need to ascertain whose interests are really being served when a government decides to craft a certain policy or take stern action in their name and so-called national interests. Mustafa K Anuar writes.
When Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government sought consent recently from Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah to declare a state of emergency over the entire federation, Malaysians from all walks of life were predictably overwhelmed by a sense of anxiety and even fear, as such a declaration has wide-ranging implications.
A state of emergency, usually invoked in extreme circumstances, entails specific restrictions – including the suspension of parliamentary democracy and civil liberties – imposed upon society supposedly aimed at protecting the overall wellbeing of ordinary citizens.
In this case, it was supposed to help fight the coronavirus pandemic for the protection of the health of all Malaysians.
On the surface, this would have given the impression that the government was imbued with the noble aim of attending to the people’s interests in the wake of the ravaging pandemic that prompted it declare a state of emergency.
However, as the turn of events recently revealed, the vested interests of the political leaders – that is, to protect their own political survival – took precedence over the larger interests of Malaysians. In other words, the ruling politicians attempted to pursue their narrow agenda under the cover of the ‘people’s or national interests’.
It is noteworthy that in such a situation the politicians concerned are inclined to use words such as “our” or “we” to project an inclusive outlook – and not one that is self-serving. Even such phrases as “saving Malaysia” (read, saving “our nation”) can be usefully employed by different groups for different purposes.
This goes to show that even in a society that has only a semblance of democracy, political leaders who have a certain political design are persuaded to make their narrow agenda appear big enough so that unsuspecting ordinary people may want to claim ownership and subscribe to it.
At the very least, a government, more so one that has got no mandate from the people, would want to be seen as taking steps that supposedly benefit the people. It would be equally important for it to sway the people to accept such measures.
However, the justification for a state of emergency, pursued by Muhyiddin and his cabinet colleagues, was not convincing enough in the face of protests from politicians, civil society organisations and academics, especially when gruesome scenarios in the larger society were presented: capital flight, curbs on the democratic process, investors’ lack of confidence, folded businesses and acute unemployment.
In addition, the material and human resources for healthcare are said to be adequate to handle the spike in Covid-19 infections in the country.
As a result, the emergency proposal did not gain the desired traction among the people or the palace. The social context was not conducive to such a drastic action.
Another instance where the interests or concerns of the people were invoked by the government was the political clampdown codenamed Operation Lalang, executed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration 33 years ago in the name of protecting national security.
That resulted in the mass arrest of 106 people comprising social activists, politicians and academics under the now-repealed Internal Security Act. In addition, the publishing permits of four publications, known for their critical stance, were revoked.
Critics maintained that those arrested had crossed swords with Mahathir over his controversial policies. In short, he brooked no dissent.
The takeaway here: people need to ascertain whose interests are really being served when a government decides to craft a certain policy or take stern action in their name and so-called national interests or national security. Otherwise, they may be taken for a ride.