(Syringe image by Yosia Urip; pills by Richard Dunstan / sxc.hu)
WE have celebrated Merdeka Day and will usher in Malaysia Day, the real national day, just a week from now. But why are we celebrating the birth of our nation? Indeed, why celebrate the birth of any nation?
This is not another article lamenting that Malaysia has not treated some of its citizens fairly. It is not your “I love my country, does my country love me?” kind of thing. Many have complained about ethno-religious discrimination and exclusion in this country already. The ugly cow-head protest, which enjoyed inaction from the federal government and managed to subdue the Selangor state government, certainly did not stop many Malaysians from feeling like migrating to other countries.
So, why should we have this nation called Malaysia if we cannot love each other, you may ask. This is actually the romanticised myth behind the nation state: that it is supposed to let us love each other.
All states exist first and foremost not to promote love, but to stop violence. Love is the business of society, not government. In the words of Enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine: “Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the later negatively by restraining our vices … The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”
We need a government to monopolise legitimate means of violence so that no individuals or groups can use violence to reign on others. Without this elimination of violence, no civilised life is possible. In this sense, the government must have enough coercive power to put down any private means of violence, but this coercive power must not be any greater than is necessary.
“Now the drugs don’t work…”
A government is like a drug — you consume a dosage that’s just enough to beat off the virus, not to get addicted. People who believe in authoritarianism and unconstrained coercive means like the Internal Security Act (ISA) or police brutality are like drug addicts. They are driven from one form of harm (private violence) to another (state violence).
Why must we minimise violence? The commonly understood reason is that it causes harm and misery to others. But the mere absence of violence does not guarantee well-being. After all, what is the point of non-violently and lovingly dying of famine? In reality, when humans are driven by famine or shortage of resources, they rarely remain kind to each other.
Thus, the often ignored but equally, if not more, important reason to oppose violence is that it prevents the use of reason. Violence is in fact the opposite of reason and in this sense is anti-evolutionary. Violence encourages us to win an argument by killing off our opponents rather than debunking their flaws or winning them over.
Hence, if society believes in violence, we will need to have stronger fists rather than bigger brains. We will develop only martial arts skills and abandon or even ban music and literature, except when they serve the purpose of war. We will develop technologies in weaponry rather than in agriculture, manufacturing or communications.
Minimising violence, on the other hand, means that we need to compete with reason in peaceful co-existence. Furthermore, our faith in reason would mean that we can be trusted with freedom.
In this utilitarian sense, the victory of reason over violence is socially and economically more productive. The end of the Cold War, which transformed battlefields into marketplaces, is the best proof.
So, why should we celebrate the nation-state?
The answer to me is simple: it minimises violence, not just to attain peace, but to allow us to use reason and enjoy freedom in peace. In this sense, a nation state is only as good as its facilitation of the use of reason and the exercise of freedom.
This does not mean that the nation-state cannot or should not have other goals. We can pursue equality, justice, fraternity, spirituality, morality, welfare, sustainability of the environment, and all other goals. But all these goals must be pursued on the basis of reason and freedom, not violence.
It is only when citizens are free from violence — not only from foreign powers and domestic non-state players, but also from their own governments, except where necessary to counter foreign or non-state violence — is a nation free. A nation-state that is free from foreign domination but lives under a domestic despot, such as North Korea, is still an enslaved country.
So, can we celebrate Malaysia? Is Malaysia really free for us to employ reason and exercise freedom in peace?
The cow-head protest and the disruption of the subsequent town hall meeting, when elected representatives were threatened with violence, suggests a big no. How can public policy be changed by a show of brutality?
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein‘s refusal to resign as home minister after sabotaging law and order and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s refusal to sack him suggest that peace in Malaysia may necessitate the end of Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) rule.
But can we trust the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) when they can so easily give in to violence? Is Malaysia safe if some Umno hardliners threaten violence in a similar fashion were they to lose the next general election? Are we then condemned between a coalition that justifies violence and another that stomachs it?
The danger is greater than this. It is beyond Umno, the BN or the PR. It is in the Malaysian psyche. Perhaps haunted by the mystifying “incident” of 13 May 1969, we lack a thorough understanding of and resistance towards political violence.
Liberating the state
We mistake ethno-religious disharmony as the real threat.
Now, would you get angry if a madman or madwoman declared himself or herself God? Would you kill him or her for insulting your faith? If not, why can’t we take every bigot — so long as they are peaceful — as madmen or madwomen and condemn them with public shaming and “excommunication“? Are the right-thinking members of society too few to overcome them?
On the other hand, even if not driven by communalism, was political violence in the Perak state assembly acceptable? Was the death of Teoh Beng Hock and thousands of others in custody, and the mass arrest of 589 anti-ISA protesters acceptable? Was the threat to bloodshed, murder and — according a report from a Malaysian Socialist Party member — rape to change a town-planning decision in Shah Alam acceptable?
If not, why do we continue seeing religious leaders getting riled up about insults towards religions rather than incitement to violence? Why don’t we see more civil society groups condemning violence? Why should we allow the Attorney-General’s Chambers to trick us into accepting the sedition and illegal assembly — and not incitement to violence — charges against the cow-head protesters?
So, should we despair because we have lost our nation-state to the cult of political violence? No, it’s time we reclaim our country. Society must liberate the state from being possessed by violence. How?
By overcoming our irrational sense of communal insecurity and distrust of freedom.
By overcoming our addiction to authoritarianism.
By rejecting political violence, embracing peace, and believing in reason.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based at Monash University Sunway Campus. This Malaysia Day, he will join many others of various faiths in the “Fast for the Nation, Peace for Malaysia” initiative.
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