For democracy to thrive, participants of peaceful engagements must be protected from unruly groups of people., says Mustafa K Anuar.
The right to express and assemble peacefully is very much part of a democratic process, which is why it is heartening to learn that the Jawi congress organised by Seni Khat Action Team (Sekat) was reportedly convened peacefully.
It is refreshing that this basic right, as enshrined in our federal constitution, on this occasion was respected by Malaysians and protected by the enforcement agencies, especially after witnessing the unceremonious cancellation of an indoor meeting of Chinese educationist group Dong Jiao Zong by a court order.
This came on the heels of a noisy protest from a coalition of Malay-Muslim civil society groups that threatened to breach peace and order (read: repeat the May 13, 1969 tragedy) should Dong Jiao Zong go ahead with its plan to discuss the issue of Jawi teaching in vernacular primary schools.
Incidentally, in the interest of justice, the full weight of the law should fall on those who threatened violence against those who harbour contrarian views.
At this juncture, it is pertinent and crucial that Malaysians, irrespective of their political bent, religious affiliation and ethnic background, be aware that people must submit to the ground rule, which is, you can assemble and express your views for as long as it is done in a peaceful fashion.
In other words, while Malaysians may not agree with the political messages that any opposing parties are pushing, their right to assemble and express their views peacefully must be respected in principle.
Thus, the proposed indoor discussion among members of the Chinese educationist group should have been allowed and, more importantly, the authorities concerned should have assured the group of their safety.
Not to accord this basic protection by the authorities concerned, as it unfortunately turned out, could be interpreted by some rowdy members of the Malay-Muslim protesters that the rule of law could be disregarded. Worse, they could become emboldened to repeat similar threats in future.
As it is, this protest that led to the cancellation of the indoor meeting was reminiscent of a boisterous protest by a Malay-Muslim group who opposed the “Federal Constitution: Protection for All” forum organised by the Article 11 Coalition in May 2006. The forum, attended by about 250 people in Penang, was disrupted after protesters threatened to storm the hotel where the event was held.
In this regard, it was instructive that Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohamed Hanipa Maidin had expressed his disagreement with the police action to obtain a court order to stop Dong Jiao Zong from discussing the Jawi issue. He reportedly said that he might disagree with “our brothers or sisters” in Dong Jiao Zong, but he valued “their fundamental right to express their opinion against any government policy”.
Which is why critics of the Malay protesters asked, if the Malay Dignity Congress could be convened, why couldn’t the Chinese educationists hold an indoor meeting among themselves?
It is also useful to bear in mind that such threatening behaviour by the protesters, who are inclined to bulldoze their viewpoints, can also have serious repercussions for other sectors of society. For instance, would a civilised intellectual forum on university campus be shut down by the sheer threats of noisy protesters in future, thus giving rise to an erosion of academic freedom?
Equally serious, the misconduct of the Malay-Muslim protesters in this case left much to be desired, especially when it didn’t seem to reflect the true teachings of Islam that exhort good behaviour and compassion among its adherents.
Self-righteousness that is expressed through the protesters’ verbal arrogance may well turn off the very people they want to convince about the importance of knowing Jawi. For example, individuals equipped with knowledge of Jawi can access archived documents of historical significance written in the script.
We should be mindful that there is already distrust and fear of Islamisation in schools. The latest move by the Ministry of Education, for instance, to permit Rakan Siswa Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (Yadim) to carry out “dakwah activities” in schools, teacher training institutes, polytechnics, public and selected private universities may not help instil confidence among non-Muslim parents.
While there is value in staging public protests or demonstrations, there are certain situations where it is prudent for the quarrelling parties concerned to instead settle for constructive dialogue and discussion. One such instance is when cases of identity politics, such as this case, become too emotive for a multi-ethnic society like ours to indulge in.
Dialogues i are especially useful for community leaders who are keen on seeking solutions or consensus, instead of gaining brownie points from their constituents through rowdy protests. As well, the opposing parties may not be compelled to take an irreconcilable hardline stand during dialogues.
For democracy to thrive, participants of peaceful engagements must be protected from an unruly, if not violent, group of people.