Overcome our fear or go quietly into the dark night that awaits us
Fear is filling our land. People are becoming increasingly afraid of their government, a government which has been amassing more and more power to harass, intimidate, threaten, punish or imprison those who oppose or disagree with it.
The goal is to cow the people into submission, force them to toe the line, pressure them to bend their knees to what their heart cries out against, to keep silent when citizenship demands a response.
There are so many oppressive laws now and so many different ways they can be applied and enforced.
There are laws against sedition, laws prohibiting actions detrimental to parliamentary democracy (a law that is itself detrimental to democracy), laws against online posts that are deemed offensive or that might hurt the feelings of others and laws against insulting behaviour, to name a few.
A tweet, a Facebook post or a careless comment on a blog can suddenly bring tactical teams to your front door. What is free speech in other democracies is increasingly criminal here.
Even harmless yellow balloons can become subversive material, leading to a “breach of peace,” be seen as “intent to provoke anger” or be taken as “insulting behavior.”
On pain of suspension or dismissal, university students are denied the right to protest, make known their unhappiness or be politically active unless, of course, they are active on behalf of the establishment.
Cartoonists and artists may not lampoon political leaders or bruise their ever so sensitive egos.
Evidently many thin-skinned politicians feel they need protection from the disdain of the people.
The people may not insult their political leaders or hurt their feelings; political leaders, however, are under no obligation to respect the feelings or the intelligence of the people.
Whatever it is, the underlying message from those in power is simply this: public opposition and dissent invite state retaliation in one form or another. If you play the game – close your eyes, turn away, keep silent and wave the flag when it is demanded of you – you’ll be spared their wrath.
It appears that as citizens the only privilege we have is to pay for all the profligacy, misgovernance and corruption that we see all around us. And, of course, to suffer in silence.
Never in our history have we been so impoverished of our rights, so at the mercy of those in power.
Is this what they mean when they talk about wanting a governance system based on Asian values, standards and requirements rather than on “the lopsided ethos” of the West (whatever that means) as one leader asserted recently?
The word is out
The word is out: don’t talk publicly, don’t write, don’t demonstrate because you never know who’s listening, who’s watching, who’s waiting for you. The state may not have such vast capabilities to monitor what people are saying or doing but when the people believe it, it becomes real. They modify their behavior, they tone it down, they retreat from the public square.
Dissent is slowly being driven behind closed doors – people complain in private, grouse quietly among friends, surreptitiously share black humor on WhatsApp or vent their anger online under cover of anonymity. This is what we have been reduced to.
And then there’s the outsourcing of terror and intimidation to groups like the Red Shirts who run around with apparent impunity threatening, intimidating and sowing fear. They vow bloodshed and promise destruction if they don’t get their way – to stifle all criticism of the party in power, to silence dissenting opinions, to deter public protest. They are shallow, crude and thuggish but they have their secret admirers.
It is simply devious for political leaders to disavow any connection to the Red Shirts while allowing them to continue their reign of terror and excusing their ugly behaviour.
In the meantime, those responsible for public safety, quick to investigate and arrest opposition leaders and activists for what they say, dismiss the threatening language of the Red Shirts as harmless talk, a mere “war of words.”
Perhaps to demonstrate some resolve, some semblance of impartiality, a few Red Shirt minions are being investigated for the minor offense of dumping trash in front of Malaysiakini’s offices.
That in itself is an affront; it is the leader of the Red Shirts himself who should be held accountable and not simply for usurping the functions of Alam Flora but for criminal intimidation.
For so long as the Red Shirt leader is allowed to strut around like a peacock on heat, it will be hard not to conclude that he has a patron in high places, that he is merely a protected hired-hand doing the dirty work of men hiding in the shadows.
The color of legitimacy
Some, of course, are endeavoring to conflate the illegitimacy of the Red Shirts with BERSIH, suggesting that both are but different sides of the same coin, that both should stop their activities.
Nothing could be more disingenuous.
BERSIH is exercising its constitutional right to peaceful assembly to demand clean elections, clean government, support for parliamentary democracy, the right to dissent and the empowerment of Sabah and Sarawak.
The Red Shirts, on the other hand, have no other agenda than to prevent citizens from exercising their constitutional rights. They have no legitimacy, no integrity and no business harassing BERSIH supporters.
There’s no moral equivalency here; they are poles apart, as different as night is from day.
And in harassing BERSIH, they cannot even claim the right to peaceful assembly.
As Razali Ismail, the SUHAKAM chairman, said, “If the intention of the organizers of a counter-demonstration is to prevent another assembly from taking place, or to interfere with it, the counter-demonstration will cease to enjoy the protection afforded by the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”
That makes them a mob, illegitimate and illegal.
Hard choices ahead
Whatever it is, we all have a hard and difficult choice before us: keep silent as our nation continues on its downward trajectory towards tyranny or stand up and speak out despite the threats and intimidation.
Many feel the battle is already lost and are leaving.
Others have decided to just stay out of the fray, abandon the struggle to build a better nation. They figure the only option that they have is make the best of a bad situation, keep their heads down, learn to survive in tyranny’s shadow.
But submission to tyranny doesn’t buy peace; it merely postpones the day of reckoning. Unbridled greed, misgovernance and the abuse of power will take its toll; it always does.
Benjamin Franklin may well be right: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty not safety.”
We all have some soul-searching to do to confront both the fear within and the fear without. We either overcome our fears or go quietly into the dark night that awaits us if we do nothing.
Dennis Ignatius is a 36 year veteran of the Malaysian Foreign Service who served in numerous ambassadorial posts before retiring n 2008.