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Black sedition vs white terror

IF I had to find a personal reason to explain the 1BLACKMalaysia campaign, I would attribute it to the determination of Perakians to denounce things they don’t like.

And I would give the royal example of the late Sultan Idris Shah II of Perak. He vowed not to shave his moustache and beard if the Barisan Nasional (BN) did not remove Tan Sri Mohamed Ghazali Jawi as menteri besar in the late 1970s. Of course, the monarch won.

But 1BLACKMalaysia is not about royal assertiveness. It’s about civil disobedience.

Peaceful, simple, minimalist

I have been wearing black since 6 Feb 2009, when Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir was unconstitutionally installed in and by the palace. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders and supporters have been wearing black, but most do it on an on-and-off basis.

The idea of getting everyone to wear black on 7 May, subverting Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s “1Malaysia, People First, Performance Now” into “1BLACKMalaysia, Democracy First, Elections Now”, emerged only on 1 May. At that time, possible chaos during the 7 May session of the Perak legislative assembly had loomed large in many people’s minds.

So, how did a simple campaign of civil disobedience that only required its supporters to wear black drown out Najib’s million-ringgit soundbites?

The answer perhaps lies in the campaign’s three features: non-violence, simplicity and minimalism.

First, the campaign is absolutely non-violent, and a pure exercise of free speech. In no way can the state find any reference to any physical resistance or violence in the message.

So, when police personnel detained joggers and restaurant patrons wearing black, the violent party was clearly the police, not the detainees or their supporters.

Second, wearing black is such a simple act that everyone can take part. People need not disrupt their routine or put aside their responsibility to wear black. This minimises excuses for non-participation.

People may choose not to wear black if they don’t believe that a government must be produced only via elections, or that big enough numbers of people wearing black will make an impact. But they can never blame it on the cost — in other words, that wearing black is expensive and time-consuming, as if wearing other colours were cheaper and more efficient.

Third, by derivation, wearing black is a minimalist act, and the state stopping this minimalist act at all costs helps simplify the issues. It all boils down to whether we should let the state deny our freedom to participate in a harmless and symbolic act.

If only the police or their political masters were a bit smarter, they would understand that the civil disobedience campaign was a deliberate attempt to win the middle ground in conservative Malaysian society. It was inspired by the tried-and-tested strategies of Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr in the US to persuade their conservative fellow citizens. 

By not doing anything more — like carrying placards or shouting slogans — we were actually forcing the state to restrain itself and concede us the democratic space to lobby others, or risk us exposing the state’s violent nature. And expose it we did.

But why must the powers-that-be expose their own violent and irrational nature?

White terror, black sedition

During my incarceration, a police sergeant took pains to show me why I was wrong: “Yes, you have the right to wear black, but you should not ask people to follow suit. You created chaos.”   


Man in black: the writer on the day of his
release
Two days after my release, an elderly man attending a media freedom forum at the Annexe, Central Market warned that we should not wear black or Malaysia would turn into Bangkok. Instead, we should make our demands through the “proper channels”. He refused to identify himself and left immediately after his floor speech.

I believe the police sergeant and elderly gentlemen explained perfectly why I and 116 others had to be arrested for wearing black.

Their grievances are not about the colour black. It would have been the same if Bersih has called on citizens to wear any other colour.

What is not acceptable is for citizens to show their politics in public. Remember the advice we so often hear, “Don’t talk about politics in public or you could be detained under the Internal Security Act”?

For many Malaysians, the only legitimate avenue for political participation is by voting. That’s why you read from time to time letters to the editor asking Malaysians to accept what happened in Perak and wait until the next election to express their dissatisfaction.

The role model being espoused here is actually the “silent majority”, not the “peace-loving majority”. By extension, the condemnation of “violence” is actually a front for condemning “disquiet”.

And civil disobedience exposes this pretence by being very expressive albeit entirely peaceful.

Wearing black is a vocal statement telling everyone, “I am not happy with the fiasco in Perak. Are you happy? If not, why don’t you wear black, too?”

This is exactly what the powers-that-be refuse to tolerate — infectious dissent, which may dissolve the “silent majority”.

Therefore, against this “seditious” black, white terror was invoked. That’s why a paranoid IGP threatened to arrest anyone wearing black; a mentally stressed OCPD ordered the arrest of lawyers on duty; and anxious police personnel carried machine guns to intimidate university students.


Lawyer Latheefa Koya speaks to a police officer during a candlelight vigil held for the
writer on the night of 7 May. On the left are Kuala Selangor Member of
Parliament (MP) Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, and Seputeh MP Teresa Kok

Is democracy not seditious?

Legally speaking, one may argue that the wearing black is indeed “seditious” if it excites “disaffection” of the people against the government.

But if this is the legal justification, then we must ask some more questions: Are elections not seditious? Is democracy not seditious?

Can opposition parties campaign effectively without exciting “disaffection” against the government? Aren’t the BN as the opposition in PR-led states also “seditious” when they condemn these state governments? Can we therefore have meaningful elections if the Sedition Act is still intact?

Expressing one’s politics in public may create some unease or even promote “feelings of ill-will or hostility” within society, another instance of “seditious tendencies” as quoted by the Act.

But what democracy are we talking about if we cannot publicly discuss matters of public interest?

Isn’t it ironic that many Malaysians like to discuss celebrities’ and politicians’ private lives in public, but will keep opinions on matters of public interest private?

Peace or violence

Readers of this column have asked what ordinary people can do to defend elected governments from the attacks of unelected institutions.

My answer is simple: deny any unelected government its legitimacy. Without legitimacy, governing becomes very costly because compliance can only be extracted by coercion and carrying out penalties against the defiant. That’s the message of 1BLACKMalaysia.


Sivarkumar dragged out of the House where the Perak state assembly sitting was being held on 7 May

In fact, with the violent removal of Perak Speaker V Sivakumar on one hand, and the success of 1BLACKMalaysia against white terror on the other, Malaysia is actually at the crossroads.

We may choose “might is right”, violence and chaos. Or we may also choose to have faith in reason and courage. We may choose peaceful and rational participation in public affairs.

The defeat of white terror by black “sedition” speaks volumes of the great potential in Malaysian politics.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court’s judgment confirming the legality of Nizar as menteri besar has also given hope that unelected institutions may correct themselves, too, from time to time.  

Some may call Perak a mess. I call it the birth-pains of 1BETTERMalaysia.


A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He thanks the police for making the 1BLACKMalaysia civil disobedience campaign a heartening success. He will continue wearing black until the Perak assembly is dissolved.

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20 Responses to “Black sedition vs white terror”

  1. Pratamad says:

    How apt, 1BETTERMalaysia!

    Najib’s 1Malaysia only aims to maintain the status quo, which is equal to corruption, abuse of police power, disregard to rule of law, tainted judiciary, a culture of patronage and cronyism.

    If all things were fine, the ‘silent majority’ would wait for the next election. But when legitimacy is disregarded and democracy is assaulted, keeping silence becomes condoning such acts. No patriotic Malaysian should stay silent that way.

  2. PM says:

    Well said, Chin Huat. I admire your courage and tenacity in encouraging the rakyat to play their role and have their say in the protecting democracy and the country’s constitution without resorting to violence.

  3. kahseng says:

    Beats 12 years of civics, moral, gotong-royong lessons.

  4. Garry Jeong says:

    Quote: “If not, why don’t you wear black, too?”

    Black – my choice. I will be in BLACK when I return to lovely Malaysia (sadly, made not-so-lovely, of late) and throughout the week there.

  5. Thurai says:

    Bravo!

  6. Hong says:

    Good piece on how civil disobedience serves to expose the use of naked force by the police (and, by virtue of that, the administration). Curiously though, you question the value of the Sedition Act while, in a previous piece for the column, you defended the need for the ISA on the grounds that Malaysia is a Hobbesian state (which, frankly, sounds a lot like paternalistic over-rationalisation). I am not quite sure how that jives. Both are poorly defined legally but at least on paper you get a right to a hearing if charged under the Sedition Act, which is not the case with the ISA. Why is indefinite detention without trial worthy of defense while the opposite is not, given that both are used and abused in the same blunt manner by politicians against their dissenters?

  7. fikri roslan says:

    Dear Chin Huat,

    Some people were born to focus on the positive aspects of their life, and in this case are always grateful. While others will highlight the negative aspects, thus will always complain. I belong to the first group.

  8. chinhuatw says:

    Thanks for the support, all of you.

    Hong, if you read carefully, I did not support ISA but merely pointed out that ISA is a product of Malaysians’ Hobbesian mindset and should not be attributed to the evil of BN. In the following week, I wrote a piece titled “Ahmad Ismail, my brother” to illustrate the point further. Trust me, I am a good follower of Thomas Paine to the core.

    Fikri, while you may not be aware, I am very positive too, just perhaps on different things. I thank my experience in the lock-up for exposing me to the inhumane condition (16-40 people in a space of 300-400 square feet for starters) and vow to keep lock-up reform on my agenda. I hope you can extend your positive outlook to the awakening of Malaysians too. In any case, that we can agree to disagree is something we should all cheer for.

  9. lizzie says:

    The boldness of the BN and the unelected institutions we witnessed in Perak did not happen overnight. A part to play is our indifference, our fear of opposing those in authority, we closed our eyes because we were comfortable.

    A gardener knows, he needs to invest his time in the toil of tilling the ground, sowing, manuring, weeding, and then he can reap a harvest. Of course hard work alone is not enough, he has to take a risk. He has to step out of his comfort zone and start working. Many hands make light work, so obviously if the job is done alone, it is tough, and if many join in, the job gets done that much faster, and even if it is difficult, we are encouraged along the way by one another.

    Though what happened in Perak seems to be something bad, but I agree, in the overall scheme of things, it is paving the way for a better Malaysia. Perak pricks at our conscience. Perak in its pain, call out to us to join her in overcoming the tyranny that is determined to silence her. Perak by its very existence, does not allow us to forget, we are one body. When one part of the body hurts, the entire body is affected.

    Chin Huat, thank you for the fashion tip!

  10. KL Wong says:

    If wearing black will create chaos, then IGP with his team can make themselves busy all the time to catch all those “men in black” at funerals everyday throughout the whole country. It is a pity that the Malaysian Police contingent, feeding on the hard earned money of all rakyat, has shamefully downgraded their honour to be the machinery of BN to protect this power-greedy political conglomerate, rather than stepping up efforts to care for the safety of all Malaysians against increasing number of crimes.

    Look at the chaos in the 7 May Perak State Assembly, who has arranged so-callled plan “B” for plainclothes police officers to disguise as VIPs who then turned into a bunch of barbarians who forcefully dragged out the people’s elected Speaker.

    He still dares to compare himself to the great Gandhi, the respected Mandela and earlier in Feb 2009, the brave Obama. Does he know that he makes himself a Foolish rascal by such comparisons? Just remember this, Zambry, your days are numbered as the rightful and truthful will always prevail because the tolerance of peaceful Perakians have reached its apex, just look at the “efficiency” of the Court of Appeal conceding to speedily deliberate judgment BN and prolonging Pakatan Rakyat’s filings!

    Let us pray for our fighting hero, MB yang sah, Datuk Seri Nizar to lead us again to bulldoze the BN!

  11. prussiablue says:

    Dear Sir, our country needs individuals like you more than ever. You are absolutely right, democracy is not confined to ballot boxes, it is encompass civil liberties and as you so lucidly point out civil disobedience if the government that sought to sanction and govern us justly deviates from this true cause. I am proud to say I wore black on the day and even prouder to say so did a lot of my fellow friends and Malaysians from all corners of life.

  12. D. evil says:

    I am sad to see BN corrupting the august institution of PDRM for political purposes. PDRM has a great history and contributed in no small way to the country.

    BN using PDRM to achieve its selfish objective in Perak, has irreparably damaged this institution. People don’t know if it is friend or enemy. This selfish use of PDRM has consigned PDRM to the same level of Gestapo, KGB, Statsi and the Tonton macoute.

    This is a shameful day for PDRM.

  13. pilocarpine says:

    OMG!

    “Some may call Perak a mess. I call it the birth-pains of 1BETTER Malaysia.”

    This is o’ so right!

    1BLACKMalaysia, Democracy First, Elections Now!

  14. pas says:

    Don’t worry, we will bulldoze BN next GE, even without DAP or PKR. Because we know how to get into the minds of the “silent majority”.

  15. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    I finally realized how far freedom of speech can go when I did a internship in 2005 in a US government lab. I was shocked to see FEDERAL EMPLOYEES hanging anti-Bush cartoons in their offices.

    Then I realized that that meant in their country, the system of government and democracy is stable and free enough that it does not depend on one party or one politician, so even government employees are free to say that they don’t like the guy who is holding office at the moment and it doesn’t “cause chaos”.

    This is not to say that I think we can only have freedom of expression when we have a perfect government – rather, achieving that freedom and freeing our systems of government from cronyism and patronage must move forward in tandem.

  16. Poh Soon says:

    Some had said that wearing black won’t change anything when you first suggested to wear black on May 7, 2009.

    However, the turn of events and the “cooperation” of the police proved it wrong. Although overseas, I had also worn black on May 7, 2009.

    I’m looking forward to see more people wearing black throughout the country to give a strong message to both BN and PR that we, the rakyat, want a fresh election in Perak. We should be the ones making the call on who to rule Perak rather than having politicians making a decision among themselves.

  17. mister potato says:

    Personally I don’t wear black. I don’t like the colour – it depresses me and besides I’m prone to dandruff.

    That said, I wholeheartedly support and salute your non-violent efforts in the exercise of civil disobedience. Thank you for being brave enough to speak out. Your actions let me believe that there’s hope for Malaysia yet.

  18. Dietrich says:

    Well said, Chin Huat.

    I wear black almost every other day, it seems to be my favourite colour of late.

  19. Stan says:

    Very well said. Thanks Chin Huat and Nut Graph.

  20. Kamal says:

    Well put, Mr Wong. Some may say that Zambry’s appointment to the job is unconstitutional, others may ponder at the parallels of events with more conventional coups; especially with police in the august house, unrestrained arrests on the streets and relunctantly giving access to Nizar to enter “his office” on the day [after] the court declared him MB.

    I, however, would like to draw attention to the fact that we are indeed at a crossroad. The issue in Perak is not about BN or PR or even the monarchy, but it is about the rights of peoples as independent citizens to make decisions on the central, most crucial aspect of our governance; self-governance. I hope Zambry recognises this. At the end of the day, democracy shouldn’t be handed over to the courts or the monarchy; it should be given back to the people.

    There is avenue for this, let’s not waste any more time. I also hope we are attuned enough to realise this is no longer just about Perak. What happens in Perak can have a deep impact on the interpretation of the constitution and on the appointment and terminations of the MB. Only history will judge the implications of our actions, but do we want to leave our children with a legacy our grand[parents] worked so hard to free themselves from?


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