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From tsunami to epidemics

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

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.

Photo of a Hindraf rally in KL
Hindraf rally

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?

As author Malcolm Gladwell aptly captured in his bestseller The Tipping Point, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread like viruses do.”

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.

Photo of Wong Chin Huat walking out of the police station after he was released
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.

Photo of Perak state secretariat building
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.

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11 Responses to “From tsunami to epidemics”

  1. Eric says:

    Chin Huat:

    May I suggest adding “self-appointed” to “Bukit Aman Disease Control Centre”. Prevention of peaceful dissent is nowhere to be found in the PRDM’s mission statement.

    1 Black Malaysia. Democracy First. Elections Now.

  2. LC Teh says:


    Mr Wong, you’ve earned your badge of honour. Your creativity in naming this an epidemic is also unsurpassed. More mangosteens?

  3. sick says:

    HIV first, AIDS now, 1 Sick Malaysia.

  4. Asian observer says:

    Mr Wong,

    Civil protest is fine but is it really effective? The real enemy we are all dealing with here is something more nebulous, not so much a person or a party but human greed for power, wealth and wrong values.

    1BlackMsia is today aimed at BN but tomorrow it could be Pakatan Rakyat that may well fall victim to these values. Turn the guns and pressure on these two rival parties and you may see more sympathy from the rakyat who is quite fed up with the current crop of ineffective and big-talking politicians.

    Having said that, I share your concerns about Msia’s perilous journey to democracy.

  5. Boon says:

    Like all epidermics or pandemics, there is really no probable cure. Once it has started, the toll of casualties can only be assessed when the waves of onslaught cease by themselves. Political immunity among the powerful is still strong but the stronger their resistance, the more the virus will evolve. Thank you, Wong for your “virus” analogy.

  6. As a person who has family in Medan as well as Banda Acheh, I find it sad that a writer can simply say a tsunami leaves behind a new landscape without mentioning the destruction, death and debris left behind.

    And I don’t think labeling this as ‘political dissent’ is entirely correct, basically because such dissent was always around since the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman.

    If the 1Malaysia policy is to succeed, it needs to know to live with the viruses and develop an immunity to such things. That can only be found through regaining credibility, something that none of the government members are doing just yet.

  7. abubacker says:

    Arrest first. Detain now.
    1 INSANE Malaysia.

  8. Kenny says:

    Wong Chin Huat is completely right. The more the police go on their senseless rampage, the more the disease spreads.

    It’s also spread by MACC who can act on the slightest whiff of corruption on opposition politicians but cannot smell the stench from BN politicians.

    It’s also spread by the biased judiciary which does not even bother to appear fair and impartial now.

    No doubt the AG who cannot hear the cries of justice for Kugan but goes after Karpal Singh, Ronnie Liu, Tian Chua and RPK on flimsy charges is also a disease vector.

    Malaysia has changed. Civil society is coalescing into demands for better governance and more democratic rights and attempts to put a lid on this creates a pressure cooker which eventually blows off the lid.

  9. Fikri Roslan says:

    I like the concept of mangosteens as given to Chin Huat: “Dark black outside, pure white inside”. So you can label this country and her government as 1BlackMalaysia, or any other name considered very bad. But as cleverly shown in the mangosteen, the white flesh of the dark kulit is very delicious. That is why we are still here enjoying negara yang aman dan makmur.

    Yes a few are not grateful and always create problem. I hope they should understand that we are also citizens of this country and would like to enjoy living here. We are also intellectuals and are able to differentiate between the right and wrong. We also understand that this country has rules and regulations. If you break the rule, then you will be penalised. If you are not happy with the government, then vote against it in the next election. At the same time we should respect others who do not share our view.

    But please understand that none of us can monopolise the truth, although the truth will always prevail. In conclusion, don’t break the rule as it will disturb the harmony of this silent majority.

  10. chinhuatw says:

    To Fikri,

    Were you not disturbed when Speaker Sivakumar was violently pulled out of the Assembly?

    Were you disturbed when my friends and I, all in black, drank kopi-O last night at a Old Town White Coffee restaurant to celebrate a friend’s birthday?

    What rule did the five poor guys from the event organizer company in Ipoh break by setting up a big balloon that they must be arrested by police for sedition?

    What rule did the police not break when they arrested five lawyers attending to the request of their detained clients?

    If the people who see BLACK are indeed a minority, why should the majority feel disturbed? If they are instead the majority, how many arrests must be made to please the “silent” minority?

  11. lau kok pin says:

    Dear Chin Huat,

    Metaphorically speaking, if the country and its citizens can be seen as an individual, us individual citizens can be seen as aspects of the country. Thus here’s an offering of a blessing to our speedy recovery. Both in our minds and in our hearts. Both individually and between groups. So relationships can be healed and transformed into nurturing, supportive and cooperative relationship. As a single entity called Malaysia, we synergise and flourish.

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