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The perils of social action

Participants of the candlelight vigil commemorating the first anniversary of the 2007 Bersih rally

I WAS surprised by the brute force used by the police when dispersing the 9 Nov 2008 candlelight vigil organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih). They arrested 23 participants, including a Member of Parliament, a state assemblyperson, a local councillor, and a priest.

You would think that, after the massive demonstrations organised by Bersih and Hindraf in the not too distant past, the police would have used more refined tactics in dispersing a small crowd of a few hundred people. The rough treatment of elected representatives is particularly distasteful.

After the fact, there was little coverage in the mainstream media, although discussion on the internet has been fast and furious. 

The heavy-handedness in dispersing the candlelight vigil will only further dampen the declining reputation of this all-important law enforcement agency. It is obvious that some police chiefs have not graduated from the era of anti-Communist crackdowns. They still regard a gathering of peaceful demonstrators, especially those that challenge the status quo, as a threat to national security and public order.

The police chief who presided over the arrest said he was just doing his job in dispersing an illegal gathering. 

Grrr. Arrgh (© Rodolfo Clix /
I cannot see how the police can enforce this outdated law with any semblance of consistency. We know that no action has been taken against those demonstrators taking part in similarly unapproved demonstrations organised by Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters in states governed by the Pakatan Rakyat. 

Jurassic Park revisited

In his letter to The Star (12 Nov 2008), Mansor Puteh rebuked the demonstrators for not respecting the wishes of the majority by protesting against the Internal Security Act (ISA). I never cease to be amazed by residual dinosaur mentality that persists to haunt post-8 March Malaysia.

Of course, the government of the day represents the majority of the nation. But the general election victory is not a blank cheque for the government to do what it wants at its whim and fancy. In between elections, individuals and groups retain their basic right to disagree with the government in a peaceful manner. This is the essence of any democracy, but this freedom to free expression and free assembly has often been denied in Malaysia.

Then there are those who say that the assembly is illegal, and indeed the police were right in upholding the law.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of unnecessary excessive force used against the protestors, this sort of argument requires clarification involving an understanding of basic jurisprudence.

A law need not necessarily be obeyed under every circumstance. A law is either good or bad. A bad law perpetuates injustice, and must be changed. According to Martin Luther King Jr, a citizen has a moral right to non-violent civil disobedience against unjust laws. 

Naturally, those who choose civil disobedience must be prepared for police action. It is part of the game and a true test of resolve for the participants in any social movement.

Martin Luther King Jr  (Public domain)
Inevitably, such a blow from the police will harden the resolve of some participants, and stir doubts and fears among others. What is important is reflection and soul-searching. Some will perhaps arrive at the conclusion that you cannot bring significant change without self-transformation at the same time.

Meanwhile, some of these valuable reflections have found their way into websites like Malaysiakini and The Nut Graph. What it means is that peaceful demonstrators may want to be more organised in future, in recruitment, networking, building coalitions, propagating information, training, pooling resources, and even rehearsing in anticipation of all possible police responses. They also have to guard against police infiltration.

We must realise that not all policemen are overzealous in their line of duty. But they are part of the superstructure of the state, and collectively they form a powerful group with vested interests at the behest of the political class. They cannot help thinking as they do. 

Rebirthing civil society

Political activists also have to be innovative in their mode of expression. The 350km Freedom Run (from 15 to 16 Nov) organised by Selangor DAP is a novel way of spreading the message for change. If the police intervene and disperse this harmless run along the east coast of the peninsula, then the return of the Mahathirite winter would seem imminent indeed.

(© Dimitar Marinov / Dreamstime)
I support these social action groups for a reason. They accelerate the gradual but certain emergence of civil society in Malaysia. They pool together concerned individual citizens for a common good. They encourage citizen participation in public affairs. They create considerable social capital that will promote social cohesion so vital to a functioning democracy.

Having been shackled by half a century of feudalistic political culture, it is hard for the ruling class to give up the awesome power vested in them by such legislation as the ISA and the Police Act. That kind of anti-democratic and anti-people power has to be prised away from their hands forcibly through democratic, non-violent means. Eventually, we will need a change of government at the federal level.

Before that happens, many citizens with perfectly good intentions will have to be liberated from their shackled understanding that laws like the ISA are indeed good for the nation. As a people, we need to be freed from fear to embrace hope.

If that kind of language sounds familiar, it is because I am thinking of a line from one of US president-elect Barack Obama’s speeches: “We are the change that we seek.” 

Yes we are.

See also Picture Gallery: Bersih’s first anniversary ends in arrests

Sim Kwang Yang was DAP MP for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995.

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