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Should Malaysians be afraid?

LORD Devlin’s axiom that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is one that is taken for fact these days. For good reasons, too: reams of writing have been expended on the need for checks and balances in any system of governance, democratic or otherwise.

What is less often talked about, at least in a political sense, is fear. I see it every day, nevertheless, in headlines quoting demagogues invoking “religion” and “culture”. I see it too in cautious commentaries appealing for people not to get involved. Often, the justification is that despite sharing one country and — as Petronas ads never tire of reminding us — one destiny, we should not comment on issues commentators claim do not impact us directly. Because it’s always about someone else of another religion or culture.

The culture of fear can make yoga look threatening

Underlying all this is fear: fear of giving up power; fear of unjust laws being brought to bear; fear of losing one’s rice bowl; fear of the menacing “other”; and simply fear in itself. And this fear is fed by a government, a media, and a society that tells us we should be afraid.

There is always a sense that something could be taken away from us at any moment, be it our liberty, wealth or faith. In the absence of fear, what rational person could come to the conclusion that yoga, of all things, poses a threat to a religion? And we are talking about a religion that is expressed by the majority of citizens in this country, Islam — which itself has a history of syncretic philosophies. And in this country, it is increasingly clear that Islam has become institutionalised at every level of governance and policy-making.

Freedom from fear

Aung San Suu Kyi wrote that it is not power that corrupts, but fear. In her essay Freedom from Fear, she contended that in an environment that breeds fear, “[a] most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.”

I see this fear not only in the lives of the so-called “ordinary people”, but activists as well. I see it in friends and colleagues worn down by the endless fight against regressive laws, as well as in trying to change a society made twisted and apathetic by fear. I hear it in the words of well-meaning people who advocate inaction under the guise of strategy, or disclaim responsibility by presenting themselves as insignificant and powerless.

Blueprint of a Panopticon, a circular building that encouraged
prisoners to self-govern out of  fear that prison guards
might be watching them (source:

In my more cynical moments, I see Malaysia as the single most successful example of a behavioural experiment — citizens function as both prisoners and prison guards within a Panopticon. The euphoria of 8 March 2008 has given way to a more familiar atmosphere of self-policing and self-censorship.

Book-thumping political leaders and religious groups are ever ready to scream invectives and accusations at those deemed to be threats simply for standing up for their rights. That “ordinary people” are blaming the victims and taking up the witch hunts themselves is perhaps not surprising, but no less heart-breaking. Suu Kyi’s essay was first published in 1991, but her words on the nature of fear ring as clearly as ever 17 years later.

I am, in a sense, privileged. My father has worked to raise his family to that upper middle-class echelon that ostensibly has more political and economic clout. I have been educated to know and appreciate my rights.

Common wisdom would have it that there is little reason for me to be afraid — it is only logical that I should, with this privilege to back me up, be braver. But if courage is defined as the absence of fear then I have never known what courage feels like. As a woman, I have never walked at night without feeling at least somewhat wary. I have never taken part in a political demonstration without the sober knowledge that I could be arrested and detained.

I have found as well that the conquest of fear has little to do with one’s privilege and status in society. Those who are loudest in proclaiming alleged threats to one’s religion and culture are often comfortably ensconced in dominant positions. Their fear has less to do with supposedly protecting morality or tradition. Rather, it stems from the knowledge that in a truly open, democratic society, they will no longer be able to dictate the terms by which we live.

We are not alone

The women who fought for the rights of their communities in Reel Power’s Alice Lives Here or Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat’s (Komas) Anak Kampung Chubadak, two excellent documentaries, are not Members of Parliament, or the daughters or wives of ministers. They are people whose lives are rarely acknowledged. Those who voted for Pakatan Rakyat candidates in the last general election were not only of the comfortable middle class. The urban-rural divide, however, makes us see a correlation between access to information and free, informed choices.

It is difficult to overcome fear, and take action based on the conviction that you and I have to be the change we want to see in this world. Too many people choose to pickle in apathy, or retreat into the shelter of religious institutions and spend their lives praying for change but fear to take any action. Others take up charity work and do their best to plug up the holes in our system, but are hesitant to work towards something more. Some take up causes and champion them admirably, but cling to prejudices and discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, and class.

Aung San Suu Kyi
It is not enough to be, in Suu Kyi’s words, the glass shards within the hands of power. In overcoming fear, our ultimate aim is a political and social transformation, towards a society and a government that can be more progressive and more accepting of diversity. This is not an easy process, and in doing so we will encounter people and experiences that will discourage us or force us to reconsider our beliefs.

But we will not be alone. If nothing else, we have to believe that.

It is no longer 1998 — for all the fear that I see every day, some things have changed. I take strength from the people I know who have never stopped pushing despite what seem to be insurmountable odds. It is thanks to them that we can be a little less fearful and little more open. Their courage humbles and inspires me.

I am a child of this nation. I have been brought up in a system that teaches me obedience is safety. I have inhaled the fear in this country’s air for most of my life. I don’t know what it feels like to live without fear lurking at the back of my mind and in the corners of my eyes. But I would like to, and that’s why I’m an activist. TNG

Yasmin Masidi works for an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur. She enjoys long talks on the beach.

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One Response to “Should Malaysians be afraid?”

  1. Yest says:

    Good article but with two mistakes in the first sentence. The quotation is from Lord Acton, and it’s “absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely”

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