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.