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The dumbing down of politics

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IN legal terms, the “reasonable person” standard is often used in arguing out cases. It is not always easy to define what this means. But it is generally accepted that the reasonable person is one who is well informed, capable, aware of the law, and fair-minded. Thus “reasonable politics” would be one that similarly lives up to each of these ideals.

It is safe to say that if Malaysia had ever practised reasonable politics, we have certainly long abandoned it.

Hari Raya mayhem

In the last week, things have been quieter on the political front, presumably due to the Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations across the country. But nay, never a dull day in hyperactive and hypersensitive Malaysia: at an open house hosted by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a group of 200 Hindraf activists handed over flowers and a Hari Raya greeting card appealing for the abolishment of the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the release of the Hindraf five (the Hindu Rights Action Force leaders imprisoned under the Act that allows for indefinite detention without trial).

K Shanti, wife of Hindraf leader P Waythamoorthy, said they intended to express that Indian Malaysians forgave Abdullah for sending the Hindraf leaders to Kamunting. It was all “in the spirit of forgiveness during Aidilfitri celebrations.”

But Abdullah’s response was less than enthusiastic, his actual words almost childish: that he was disappointed because “only one of them said Selamat Hari Raya” to him, and that the real spirit of Aidilfitri was to “be happy, have fun and socialise.”

Given the choice, “don’t worry, be happy” is a philosophy any sane person would want to abide by. But this is not a make-believe world of song. That the Hindraf activists practically begged for their leaders’ release meant they were deeply angered. Asking the families of those imprisoned to just forget it and pretend it never happened is not only unthinkable; it mocks their suffering and pain.

Protesting the ISA
Hindraf supporters sporting banners of their five detained
leaders during an anti-ISA march in Kuala Lumpur on
27 Sept 2008
Harsher punishment for Hindraf?

Zulkiflee Bakar’s commentary in Utusan Malaysia on 6 Oct 2008 argues for stricter action to be taken against Hindraf, since another movement (an Islamic one, at that) — Al-Arqam — had been dealt with harshly. All its leaders had been thrown into ISA detention, and their assets confiscated. Hindraf, Zulkiflee says, should be no different. To allay the fears of the Malays against the “rude and violent” behaviour of Hindraf, harsh punishment should be meted out to preserve national unity.

Such are the signs of an almost fascist viewpoint, one that makes an apparently reasonable argument and believes it to be fair. It attempts to justify unmitigated punishment, targeted at a particular group in society, with the lame excuse that this would somehow strengthen racial unity.

Police reports have since been lodged against Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, Utusan Malaysia, and several non-governmental organisations over false allegations regarding the event. I argued in my last article that we would continue to witness a vicious cycle of such race- and religion-based actions, with police reports galore, unless something drastic changes our modus operandi.

Changing our mode of operation

First, we need to be confident about our identities, whatever ethnic or religious heritage we possess. We need to overcome insecurities that any particular community is under threat. This, unfortunately, requires the dislodging of falsely held notions from the past. Uncovering new facets of Malaysian history — deconstructing roles that different ethnic groups have played in shaping society — is therefore one very important project.

Second, people need to hold leaders accountable to their promises of open dialogue. For example, the Building Bridges Global Interfaith Seminar scheduled in May 2007 was “postponed” abruptly by the Malaysian government. The theme, as planned, was Humanity in Context: Christian and Muslim perspectives on being human. Why? It appears as though it is impossible to deliver on any government-driven interfaith dialogue and interaction.

Suhakam regularly holds dialogues with civil-society
Hindraf, which does not champion a religious cause but an ethnic one, has not been officially invited for a dialogue with the government.

While some channels do exist to make views known, these are highly selective. For example, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and the Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage hold closed-door consultations with particular groups on certain issues. Marginalisation of ethnic Indians is one of these issues, but unfortunately, Hindraf itself has not been visibly present in these discussions. Civil-society initiatives should be considered an equally valid platform for views to be made known, not only through the executive arm.

Third, the political will to address blatantly racist statements must be exercised. While the right to make opinions known should be defended, the premier of a country has the right to chastise those who act unreasonably.

In this Hari Raya episode, the prime minister has instead turned his back on the people, responding childishly to the Hindraf supporters. His actions send a chilling signal to all citizens: this is the way the government will treat any dissident standing up for a cause. Laugh off an arrest, wipe your hands clean, and call for more cheer all round. After all, the reason we are Malaysian is to “be happy and have fun”.

Like a hamster on a wheel… (© Scott Maxwell /
Conversely, one could pass off this glassy-eyed stupor as cleverly crafted. As Polonius tells Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” Abdullah, being in the most vulnerable position in Umno presently, cannot afford to let down his guard in championing Malay and Muslim rights. The political game we call Malaysia requires him to pacify the ideological Malay right and its demands — real or imagined.

A fascist agenda

Stuck in a catch-22, Abdullah’s predicament is not new. All politicians in Malaysia have at some point felt the need to bow down to a fascist agenda. Fascism, by definition, is a nationalist ideology that seeks to achieve a national rebirth by exalting cults of unity, strength and purity. This is the failing of politics here, the unfortunate dumbing-down process that hits even the most intelligent and articulate leader. The most important cog in the wheel — political will — is therefore the most impossible to achieve with the present political system.

Until this race-based system is replaced with an alternative one — of class, of ideas, of policies — we will be like hamsters running on an ever-spinning wheel. Worse, imagine our foreseeable descent into full-fledged racism, patted away smilingly by an unperturbed leader. Nero played the fiddle while Rome went up in flames. What will Malaysia’s leader do?

Related article:
The embarrassment of injustice

Tricia Yeoh is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She believes that Malaysians should stop brewing racial and religious insecurities, and in so doing, differences can be celebrated.

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