Corrected on 10 Dec 2008 at 10.00am
Police negotiating with protester wearing “Mansuhkan ISA” headband outside Masjid Negara, 13 Sept 2008
(pic by Lainie Yeoh)
NO, your eyes do not fool you. Nor have I been visited by Special Branch officers and “turned over”.
I was at the Petaling Jaya Civic Centre car park Sunday night, 7 Dec 2008, attending the weekly anti-Internal Security Act (ISA) gathering. A passionate speaker lamented that there were so few Malaysians there because they were afraid of the ISA. He was also disappointed that corrupt governments can be overthrown once and again by demonstrating crowds in Bangkok, but not in Kuala Lumpur.
The gentleman could not be more wrong if he thought the causality works only in one direction — that the ISA causes people to shun demonstrations. It actually works both ways — the ISA also exists because of some people’s fear of demonstrations and all other forms of political expression.
Also, one could not be more wrong to think that the ISA is merely an evil tool of the Barisan Nasional (BN) to control citizens. It is not a complete falsehood when BN politicians claim that the people want the ISA since they support a ruling coalition that desires the ISA.
The ISA is here because it has served a purpose to a sizeable segment, probably the majority, of Malaysians. What purpose is that? Having a strong government.
(Corrected) Without the ISA and all other draconian laws, a government cannot be strong in an autonomous sense — it can only persuade and not coerce people to support it.
But why would people want a strong government? Because we are fundamentally a Hobbesian nation.
Thomas Hobbes (source: wikipedia.org)Hobbesian nation
Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century conservative British philosopher, believed that human beings living in the state of nature were living in a state of war, their lives short and brutish. Incidentally, it was Hobbes who invented the concept of the social contract.
Driven by our selfish desire to compete for resources, we would pose threats to each other in the absence of government. Therefore, it is justifiable for a government to be absolute and disregard consent because the people cannot be trusted.
Push the Hobbesian logic to the extreme, and you will believe that even a bad government is better than no government. If only Hobbes was Asian, he would assure us that the government is always benevolent.
Most of us are Hobbesian because we do not believe that a multi-ethnic society can remain peaceful if the citizens are free. We are insecure with our differences.
Some of us wish for the differences to be eliminated through assimilation, with everyone professing one faith, speaking one language, observing one custom, or inter-marrying for common posterity.
And there are bound to be some among us who feel hurt when a “sensitive issue” is raised. The issue could be the constitutional “special position of Malays and natives of any of the states of Sabah and Sarawak”. Or it could be the extra-constitutional issues of bumiputeraism, Islam, the Malay language, the Malay rulers, or Chinese and Tamil schools.
And feeling hurt gives us a strong reason to ask others to shut up. So, we wave the keris, stage demonstrations, point fingers at other’s noses, tear people’s pictures up or even threaten to burn down buildings. The message is simple — stop this or you will incite ethnic riots.
Preventing ethnic riots 101
How do you prevent an ethnic riot? The government’s answer is simple — crack down with the ISA.
In other words, the ISA and the authoritarian state that it protects is the lesser evil compared to looting and irrational mass killings. And since the ISA is here, everyone expects the state to use it against others who hurt their feelings. For many, the ISA is actually legitimate insofar as it is impartially used.
That is the reason why a government defending the ISA has been supported by more than half of the Malaysian electorate. It’s like an insurance premium paid to hedge the risk of a disaster.
Protesters at anti-ISA candlelight vigil, 27 Sept 2008
But then, why have there been continuing anti-ISA gatherings that attract ordinary people, rather than civil society activists and opposition members, after 8 March, with the date a constant reference point?
A simple explanation is that there have been no post-election riots. It is obvious that for some Malaysians, the risk of being an ISA victim is a premium unnecessarily paid to hedge against a fake hazard.
But have we really outgrown our obsession with a strong government? I am afraid not.
The need for a strong government can only be gone when we believe we can deal with our differences without resorting to violence, whether by private citizens (riots) or the state (political crackdowns).
It will happen only when we believe we can trust our rationality. If we are right, we will win the debate; if we are wrong, then it is still beneficial for us to be proven wrong.
Are Malaysians willing to engage in rational debate when it comes to issues of religion, the labelling of natives and immigrants, or the future of multiculturalism?
No, more often than not, we respond with our emotions. “We are hurt, so you must shut up and apologise! You refuse to do so? We will take matters into our own hands or lodge a police report against you.”
In this sense, the ISA is more than “detention without trial”. It is one of the many tools — alongside the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and other draconian laws — available to a Hobbesian state to save us from killing each other.
The antithesis or antidote of the “unjust” ISA is therefore not “justice”, for justice in the minimal sense could mean a wrong universally and impartially applied.
Remember how many Malaysians condemned the arrest of journalist Tan Hoon Cheng? “How could the government arrest the messenger when the culprit is left scot-free?” The implied message was, it would have been less unjust if Datuk Ahmad Ismail were arrested together with Tan. But if Ahmad alone were arrested, how many would protest against the ISA?
The ISA serves our subconscious need for a strong government, like kids who turn to parents to punish their siblings to win a fight. To eliminate the ISA, you cannot just change the law. You must eliminate such deeply-rooted psychological needs.
We need to be comfortable with freedom. Right now, there is a fear of the “other’s” freedom to think, say and do as they please. “We” perceive this as different from what “we” think, say and do. Thus, “we” perceive “their” freedom as threatening “our” world. This chain of reasoning, triggered by fear, is what created the ISA in the first place.
Blaming the BN for the ISA is easy, but such self-righteousness will blind us from acknowledging our own evil taste for authoritarianism. It does not get us closer to freedom, which is a combination of confidence to live our lives as we please and humility not to ask others to do the same.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.