MANY Malaysians might say that if there is anything we need more than jobs in these times of economic hardship, it is stability. You read an increasing number of comments that urge people to get priorities right — get more jobs or prevent job cuts — regardless of the issue being discussed.
And how would we do that? If you don’t have a clue, a well-learned, unelected public leader has just offered the people some advice: do not engage in “extreme political activities” that burden the police and adversely affect the economy.
I agree with this leader’s centrist discourse, that we all must shun “extreme political activities”, but beg to differ with his citation of “illegal demonstrations” as the prime example.
Indeed, Malaysians who believe in middle-ground politics must know well the definition of centrism. There are two strands of middle-ground discourse, which I refer to as “authoritarian centrism” and “democratic centrism” for ease of analysis and reference.
The first strand of centrism is essentially Hobbesian and preys on the human fear of chaos and disorder. Centrism in this perspective is about keeping most people happy enough not to turn to violence.
If something that has been said or done can cause the majority or a vocal minority to feel hurt or agitated, it is defined as extreme and must be punished. The government must therefore be given adequate power to punish those who create trouble, whether they are questioning religion, language, royalty, or the government itself.
In other words, authoritarian centrism is a set of definite values, institutions and policy goals supposedly desired by the majority and backed by the state. Anyone who holds preferences different from that of the “middle ground” is extremist by definition, regardless how such “extremist” preferences are pursued.
So, if the “middle ground” believes in an ethnic hierarchy, advocacy of race-blind egalitarianism is considered extreme. That’s why critics of Umno’s “social contract” discourse and the New Economic Policy need to be labelled as either Malay traitors or non-Malay chauvinists.
Aerial view of the Bakun Dam project in Sarawak (Source: bakundam.com)
If the “middle ground” believes in economic development at all costs, then environmentalists are extreme. That’s why critics of the Bakun Dam need to be denied entry to Sarawak.
If the “middle ground” believes in creationism, propagation of evolutionism is of course extreme. That’s why the Indonesian translation of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species needs to be banned.
If the “middle ground” believes that the monarchy is absolutely unquestionable, unless by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad or Umno, then any true advocate or believer of constitutional monarchy is extreme. That’s why Karpal Singh needs to be charged under the Sedition Act for holding a legal opinion that the sultan can be sued in the court of law.
If the “middle ground” believes that the word “Allah” must not be used by non-Muslims, then even having an opinion — unless it affirms the status quo — on the issue may be extreme. That’s why the Selangor Islamic Religious Council plans to sue the Bar Council for holding an online opinion poll on this.
If the “middle ground” believes that teaching science and mathematics in English is the only way for Malaysia to succeed globally, petitions against the language-switch policy are also extreme. That’s why 200 tear gas canisters need to be shot at a peaceful crowd, which included senior citizens.
Police used tear gas on the crowd who had gathered to protest against
the teaching of maths and science in English on 7 March 2009
Restrictive laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA), Sedition Act, Police Act and of course now also the Communications and Multimedia Act are necessary for the government to suppress extremists and safeguard peace. Not doing so would be irresponsible, because the middle ground would be furious and the economy ruined.
Wait a minute, you might ask, who defines the “middle ground”? The government? The media? The police? Or some other unelected institution? That itself is a very extreme question. In authoritarian centrism, the overriding political goal is absence of violence, and the middle ground is the one position that can prevent violence.
Questioning the middle ground is thus challenging the existing political order, which may infuriate the middle ground and provoke violence. That’s why sometimes opposition politicians need to be “rehabilitated” under the ISA.
Voltaire (Public domain) In contrast, “democratic centrism” is very much Voltairean and based on faith in liberty and rationality. It has no idea what “One Malaysia” should be, let alone the best solution for all its problems. It only knows that any solution to any problem must prevail through democratic means, not through persecution of citizens, buying over of elected representatives, or mutiny by unelected institutions.
In other words, this centrism is defined not by the ends, but the means.
A progressive can become an extremist if he or she tries to impose his or her altruistic ideas on everyone else through undemocratic means. On the other hand, a self-interested conservative can be a centrist if he or she is willing to play by the rules of democracy.
The beauty of democratic centrism is it breaks down ideological forts. All centrists — liberal and conservative, left and right, business interests and environmentalists, Muslims and non-Muslims, pro-English and pro-mother tongue — can engage with each other peacefully to find a common solution or to agree to disagree. Opponents are only opponents, not evil enemies that must be destroyed at all costs.
Democratic centrism recognises that everyone is a stakeholder in the country with intertwined interests. Therefore, the state, economy and society can be damaged not only by violence and expressed hostility, but also resentment and hidden disobedience.
Thus, democratic centrism does not privilege an arbitrarily and subjectively defined “good” decision. What is more important is that the decision is objectively “acceptable” to most. By declining a “winner-takes-all” attitude, no negotiation is a final battle. The infinite time horizon of democratic negotiation allows everyone to be more rational because one can win the next time even if one loses this round.
This prospect of long-term coexistence hence allows us to shun violence, whether it takes the form of ISA arrests and deaths in police custody delivered by the state, or ethnic riots and vandalism by non-state players. If our political parties can appreciate this, it will be one weapon they can use to check the usurpation of democracy by unelected institutions.
Crucial choices, trying times
When the economic crisis deepens, and more jobs are lost, and crimes soar with unemployment, and people are more irritable because of stress, we will naturally seek centrism and stability.
The question is, what will we choose — authoritarian centrism or democratic centrism?
Like a tempting liquor, authoritarianism can be way smoother and more elegant in delivery than neverending deliberations and deadlocks in a democratic mess.
Fleeing the scene of the 7 March gathering
Authoritarianism is tempting in an even darker way. It works from the logic of violence, coercion and threat.
It is essentially the worship of might, which triggers self-righteousness in taking non-compromising positions. If you happen to be the stronger side, you may believe you are executing the destined cause. If you are the underdog, you may take pride in being a martyr.
So, why bother affirming democracy to permit diversity, differences and competition? Why not silence all critics and get the nation focused on one set of goals as the destined leader sees fit?
As the changing of the guard approaches, Malaysians must bear in mind that dictatorship and authoritarianism are best bred in economic winters. These are times in which social conflicts escalate and drive citizens into panic, looking for quick fixes.
And so the call for a political truce, if not accompanied by condemnation of intensifying suppressions, is more dangerous than any power struggle. Malaysian Insider columnist Muaz Omar’s objection to the idea of a unity government now is therefore timely.
Some foreign scholars have in the past hailed Malaysia’s so-called “coalition government” as an exemplary management of ethnic relations for a developing country. And yet authoritarian centrism is essentially what the Barisan Nasional government has been all about for the past 40 years since the 13 May 1969 ethnic riots.
Question is, when will democratic Middle Malaysia stand up and be counted?
Wong Chin Huat believes that Malaysians must make themselves more faithful democrats to resist the evil temptation of authoritarian centrism. He is still wearing black in protest of and mourning for the fall of Perak’s democracy, but is upbeat he can soon try other colours. A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, he is based in Monash University’s Sunway Campus.