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Who watches the watchmen?

“QUIS custodiet ipsos custodes?” The Latin phrase from Roman poet Juvenal’s Satires is more popularly known today as “Who watches the watchmen?”

The question kept repeating in my head as I surfed the numerous websites, read the articles and listened to the Comic Geek Speak podcasts that crowd the internet these days. They are part of the hype in the run-up to the worldwide release of Zack Snyder’s depiction of the graphic novel, Watchmen, on 6 Mar 2009.

Poster for the movie release of Watchmen

I felt like I had overdosed on all things Watchmen. In the state of stupor, induced by the hype and prolonged exposure to the glare of the computer screen, I kept thinking, “Who watches the watchmen?” I kept thinking of the political fiasco in Perak — like the Black Freighter subplot in the graphic novel, it’s a microcosm of the problem that plagues the rest of the nation’s political landscape.

Confessions of a geek

First, a confession to explain how this whole spiel about Watchmen started. I am a fan of Alan Moore’s literary works. But in my weak moments, I have been guilty of being swayed by the Hollywood adaptations of his works and, sometimes, the marketing gimmicks.

I respect Moore’s personal principles for refusing to have anything to do with the Hollywood appropriations of his works, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Watchmen, among others. However, it was difficult for the geek in me to not check out Watchmen the film on the internet.

There has been a build-up of excited talk, complaints and marketing. There have also been several timely interviews with Moore.

In The weird world of Alan Moore, writer Andrew Johnson says the “black magician who created the graphic anti-heroes is ‘spitting venom’ from afar over the new film.”

“The writer (Moore) sees Hollywood as a voracious destroyer of ideas. He has described the film industry as ‘bullying’ and ‘spoon-feeding’ its audience,” Johnson says in the article in The Independent.

I doubt Moore would be amused by Warner Bros’s online marketing of Watchmen. There is now a slew of viral sites associated with the film, other than the main site, which has the blood-splattered smiley as the favicon.

Fans can download screensavers, wallpapers and applications from I Watch the Watchmen, read “declassified” documents on the heroes in New Frontiersman or buy a can of Nite Owl Dark Roast from Organic Coffee Cartel. Or, they can let Rorschach mock them in Watchmen: 6 Minutes to Midnight.

Keeping an eye on the guardians

But geek speak aside, my fascination with Watchmen is with the story. Written by Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, with John Higgins as the colourist, some of the themes of this 1987 graphic novel are timeless.

Covers for the 1987 (left) and 1995 editions, published by
DC comics and Titan Books (Source: Wikipedia)
Moore examines a society that places much faith in superheroes, passing on perhaps too much responsibility to the masked and costumed crime fighters. When that goes sour, the question “Who watches the watchmen?” is raised.

In the graphic novel, the question leads to the enactment of the Keene Act, which outlaws vigilantism by superheroes. In Plato’s Republic, the same question is posed to Socrates, whose notion of a perfect society includes a class of guardians to protect the city. Who, then, keeps an eye on the guardians and protects society from them if they fail in their duties?

The question resonates with the fiasco that has emerged in the Malaysian political landscape. Let’s take a little poetic licence to see the government, institutions like the executive, legislature and judiciary, police, anti-corruption authority and elected representatives as having certain “watchmen” duties.

It’s been almost a year since 8 March 2008, the general election seen by many to herald the beginning of a multi-party system in Malaysia. Besides Kelantan, which has been governed by PAS for decades, Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor also rejected the Barisan Nasional (BN).

Many placed their hopes in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Some saw its de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as the symbolic leader of change. Not content with having won a record five states in this round, Anwar wanted to take over the federal government on 16 Sept 2008 through defections of BN parliamentarians.

Some civil society groups were willing to endorse the PR’s use of crossovers to form the federal government. In so doing, these groups also compromised their role in providing independent checks and balances to the situation. As for news organisations, no prizes for guessing where those owned by or with links to BN parties are leaning.

Then in February 2009, the BN, not content to wait for the next general election to woo back Perak’s voters, set out to recapture the state government through defections. The palace decided to favour the BN rather than let the electorate decide.

More twists emerged in the plot: the PR took the BN to court, the BN sought a Queen’s Counsel, and the PR state assembly speaker suspended the BN-installed menteri besar and executive councillors. The PR then led an emergency sitting of the state assembly al fresco under a tree, after being locked out of the building.

Perak assembly speaker V Sivakumar convening an emergency sitting
in an open parking lot (Pic courtesy of Merdeka Review)

This brings to mind another infamous incident which demonstrated just how much Malaysia’s democratic institutions have been eroded thus far: the lock-out at the Supreme Court and Parliament in the Tun Salleh Abas case.

When will it end?

Do we really want this fiasco to go on? Does it matter anymore who started it first? Do we want gutter politics to prevail? Do we want our institutions of government, the executive, legislature and judiciary, to deteriorate further?

While the politicians slug it out, the global economic slowdown has hit our shores. Ordinary folk are worried about bread and butter issues, whether they have a secure job to feed the family and meet financial obligations. Employers are concerned about being able to do business and pay the staff in these trying times.

People are concerned about whether the police can keep the crime rate down and suspects in custody alive, and if the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission can take the real corruption bull by its horns.

As Anas Zubedy put it in his appeal to the politicians, which appeared in his blog and as an ad in The Star on 26 Feb: “Our concern today is not who rules the country or heads the state governments but the looming bad economy.

“Whether Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat leads, it is meaningless if Malaysians have no job to go to, no money to pay rent and no means to put food on the table,” he said.

(© DC Comics)
Whether there will be snap polls in Perak, or one party has to swallow the bitter pill and wait for the next general election, this whole episode has been an important lesson to the politicians and to Malaysians. The next time Malaysians go to the polls, we should send a strong message to the politicians on what kind of politics we want and what we won’t tolerate.

“Who watches the watchmen?” We all do.

Cindy Tham was born in Perak but is registered to vote in Selangor.

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