METAPHORS are more than sound bites. For example, the sea-changing 2008 general election is best represented by the metaphor “tsunami”, first coined by seasoned opposition leader and DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang.
Why is tsunami an apt metaphor for 8 March 2008? First, a tsunami sweeps away existing structures and leaves a new landscape behind. Second, it strikes without much warning. For the most part, most people ignore its signs and are caught off guard by a tsunami’s impact. Hence, the book edited by Kee Thuan Chye about the 8 March elections titled The Day Malaysia Woke Up.
8 March was indeed such an unexpected killer for the Barisan Nasional (BN). But what threat does the BN face today that is even greater than a political tsunami?
More deadly than a sudden political tsunami is infectious political dissent. The virus of political dissent is what is now fueling a post-tsunami epidemic and causing distress to the BN administration.
If 8 March was indeed a tsunami, it was because the early signs of opposition then — like the three rallies organised respectively by the Bar Council, Bersih and Hindraf — were not enough to convince most Malaysians that the BN would lose its two-thirds majority in Parliament, and its hold on power in five states.
Most Malaysians remained silent until the last moments of the tsunami. In fact, the first few days of the campaign period were relatively calm and slow.
But silence is one thing evaporating fast post-8 March. The silent majority have since refused to take things lying down. Spurred by the hope of change because of 8 March, they have turned vocal and refused to waste another five years in wait.
Hence, an outspoken population now makes heroes of those who are unjustly persecuted or vilified by the state. For example, Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees Tan Hoon Cheng, Teresa Kok, Raja Petra Kamarudin and the Hindraf five have emerged triumphant. From the ruins of the Perak coup, embattled Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin and embattled Speaker V Sivakumar rise as national heroes. Out of the cyber gutter, Elizabeth Wong is soaring high like a phoenix.
If the BN fears by-elections, it should realise that by-election results since 8 March are only the symptoms and not the cause of this epidemic of dissent.
Dissent as an epidemic
Why is political dissent comparable to an epidemic?
Social movements need not be formally organised. When a sticky message spreads to the right number of opinion leaders, in the right context, it may just turn into an epidemic.
In fact, journalist Oon Yeoh first used the idea of a “tipping point” for Malaysia’s new landscape in the book he edited on the 8 March elections.
Indeed, the epidemic of dissent is now more obvious than a year ago as evidenced by the increasing sense that 13 May is becoming a lethargic ghost that fails to scare even the old and infirm.
Police actions provide the best support for the metaphor of an epidemic of dissent.
Wong Chin Huat leaving the police station
after he was released on 8 May
Over the past three weeks, the police have arrested a total of 165 people for a variety of actions related to Perak’s political developments, from wearing black to lighting candles to setting up canopies for a hunger strike.
Police arrests for such actions can be seen as quarantining the “virus carriers” of dissent. The authorities hope that the fear of being arrested and locked up would serve as a vaccine.
However, when the arrested talk about their lock-up experiences with excitement and detention becomes a badge of honour, you know the anti-viral drug has only made the virus stronger.
What are the options now for the Bukit Aman Disease Control Centre?
They have already tried stronger drugs by cracking down even on a birthday party and a hunger strike in black. But the 1BLACKMalaysia epidemic is still spreading and gradually crowding out the 1Malaysia propaganda.
Unlike organised campaigns like the three mass rallies in 2007, the epidemic in 2009 has no “ring leaders” for the authorities to catch or persecute. Viruses simply have no “leaders”.
What frustrates the police and drives them desperate is this: the more “carriers” you catch, the faster the epidemic spreads.
Battling the virus
To win the game they are in, Bukit Aman should first of all know their enemy. I am happy to offer my answer free-of-charge even though I have no reason to repay the police’s “hospitality” for the free lodging, food and medical check-up I had from 5 to 8 May.
What is the nature of the virus they are combating? The virus is incurable and indestructible because it is part of us and what makes us human. Call it common sense or reason or even humanity.
Because of the common sense or reason that we have, humans have limited tolerance for injustice, violence, arrogance and absurdity. Hence, the virus does not strike without such triggers.
That’s why you don’t have civil disobedience now in India, the US or Poland. When governments are seen as legitimate by the majority of the population, any call for civil disobedience is ignored or ridiculed.
On the other hand, when a government’s legitimacy is at stake, the possibility of civil disobedience is like a dried bush waiting for a spark of fire.
The police must therefore stop thinking about quarantining the carriers of dissent. Otherwise, we may need to eventually throw at least half of our 27 million population into the lockup.
Instead, the police must advise their political chiefs to quarantine the “triggers”, whose abuse of power and arrogance make civil disobedience the trendiest thing in town.
Perak state secretariat building, which houses the state assembly
For example, the ill-tempered Brickfields OCPD must be quarantined until he completes his anger management course.
Similarly, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and the Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan must be quarantined from making more infuriating statements until they learn the basics of democracy and rule of law.
Of course, the police must also quarantine themselves from civil gatherings — in black or other colours – to prevent further outbreaks. They would do better by focusing on crimes rather than violating citizens’ rights.
One group of triggers, however, must not be quarantined. BN-installed Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir and his troop of BN and BN-friendly lawmakers need to be cured with an electoral verdict for their political deceit.
As the “democracy first, elections now” prescription on the wall states, fresh polls in Perak would be the ultimate remedy to end this 1BLACKMalaysia epidemic before it sweeps Putrajaya.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. A friend sent him mangosteens with this message: “Dark black outside, pure white inside”. Wong is thrilled by the creativity of Malaysians in practising civil disobedience.