HOW many times and just how hard do Malaysians have to try to meet Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to raise legitimate concerns about government action?
And what price do Malaysians, who will not toe the government line by speaking up against injustice, have to pay for trying to meet the self-professed “Prime Minister for all Malaysians”? The one whose smiling face on posters and postcards leads one to trust in a benevolent leader?
During the Aidilfitri open house hosted by Muslim ministers at the Putra World Trade Centre on 1 Oct 2008 or 1 Syawal 1429, two groups of Malaysians tried to meet Abdullah to plead with him over the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA). The Act unjustly allows for indefinite detention without trial and has, since 1960, been amended numerous times to allow for greater executive power to detain people without accountability.
One was a group of bloggers, including human rights lawyers that wore anti-ISA t-shirts. The other was a much larger group, numbering a few hundred Hindraf members. Both groups wanted to call on the prime minister to release all ISA detainees and to abolish the law.
These Malaysians believed that the only way they would get a chance to deliver their message directly to the prime minister was at a publicly funded open house. After all, he is a learned Muslim who has often publicly declared that he will do what is right and just as exhorted by Islam.
A supporter holds a candle during a vigil on 27 Sept
2008 for the Hindraf leaders detained under the ISAOther attempts to meet him officially had failed. K Shanthi, wife of Hindraf chairperson P Waythamoorthy, told Malaysiakini they had attempted to meet with the premier many times at his office but failed. Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI) has also said that it had requested to meet the prime minister more than 20 times and the home minister more than 30 times. To no avail.
Indeed, this isn’t the first time the prime minister had to be “ambushed” by citizens with legitimate demands.
In fact, Hindraf national coordinator RS Thanenthiran said they had informed the prime minister’s office of their intention to visit him to deliver their message. They were told by a senior personal assistant that everyone was welcome at the open house.
Still, what happened at the open house was far from welcoming. Police blocked both groups from entering the PWTC, then corralled them into a room away from where Abdullah was, before leading them outside the building.
Police told both groups they couldn’t wear the t-shirts they had on even, even though, curiously, no law exists to prohibit anyone from wearing those particular items of clothing. A card that Hindraf wanted to present to the premier was also torn in a run-in with the police.
Because both groups persevered, they managed to finally find their way to the prime minister. To Abdullah’s credit, he seemed amused. He was seen smiling as he greeted the activists and listened to what they had to say.
Utusan Malaysia, specifically, has continued to run reports on its front page demanding for action, including the use of the ISA, to be taken against the Hindraf group.
The group’s action, to try and raise a legitimate concern with the leader of government, has been described as nothing less than “extreme”, “uncivilised”, “irresponsible”, “an insult to Islam and Muslims”, and “damaging to Malaysia’s image”. Other descriptions include “selfish”, “sectarian”, “traitors to Malaysian unity”, “militant”, “provocative”, and “capable of creating unrest in the country”.
Abdullah is all smiles as he poses with DAP advisor Lim Kit
Siang and other politicians at the open house As wildly disconnected as these views are from what Hindraf did and the actual impact of its actions on peace and harmony in the country, the smiling premier still found it credible to announce on 6 Oct just how disappointed he was with Hindraf.
But one shouldn’t be too surprised by Abdullah’s volte face. This is typical of Abdullah’s flip-flop leadership, which has far too frequently not matched action to words.
From banning any discussion on Article 11 despite saying the government was open to inter-faith dialogue, to not reforming the police force and not backing his minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim in seeing through judicial reforms, this is why Abdullah no longer enjoys the majority support he did when he first became premier.
One also shouldn’t be too surprised by the singling-out of Hindraf. Even though another group was also at the ministers’ open house, and even though that group had a similar message to deliver to the premier, only the Indian Malaysian group is being vilified. That, too, can be deemed typical of a country where race politics is the name of the game, and marginalised groups are easier to demonise.
It is also typical that the police should be used to prevent citizens from meeting the nation’s leader, especially when these citizens bear messages that publicly indict a leadership of unjust behaviour.
Was it embarrassing for the status quo that remains in power that two groups of citizens with legitimate concerns were able to highlight the injustice of the ISA at such a public event? I’ll bet it was. Hence, the typical response by ministers and other groups castigating Hindraf.
What’s happening now is a cover-up of that embarrassment. Perhaps, if enough vile descriptions can be piled on Hindraf and their actions can be demonised, people just might get distracted.
They just might forget that those who should be indicted are not citizens in a public forum calling for justice to be done and holding leaders accountable. Those who should be condemned should be the leaders in power who try to hide their shame behind silencing and shaming others.
The dumbing down of politics
Jacqueline Ann Surin believes that if governments cared to listen and respond to citizens’ legitimate concerns, they would be spared the embarrassment of being held publicly accountable.