Ahmad Ismail (source: Oriental Daily), against a map of Malaya (public domain. Source: wikipedia.org)
IMAGINE this. It’s 2013. The Pakatan Rakyat is in government and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is Malaysia’s 7th prime minister. In Kedah, Datuk Ahmad Ismail passionately repeats his 2008 message that Chinese and Indian Malaysians are squatters, and that Malay Malaysians ought to reclaim their supremacy.
What would we do with him? Would we charge Ahmad under the Sedition Act? Tell him to leave the country since he’s unable to live with the reality of a multi-ethnic democracy? Immediately deprive him of his citizenship?
You may say, “Why not?” If he cannot treat someone else fairly, then he does not deserve fair treatment. That’s the “an-eye-for-an-eye” logic we all know so well.
But should one be deprived of his/her citizenship because of his/her opinion, no matter how appalling it is, when a criminal sentenced to life imprisonment or even death is still worthy of Malaysian citizenship?
At this point, you may feel provoked: this stupid columnist is at it again, defending Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) racists!
Bad laws for bad people
My column last week, Why Malaysia needs the ISA, evoked uproar in the blogosphere not because it allegedly justifies the Internal Security Act (ISA). But because it shatters the black-and-white worldview many anti-BN readers hold, just as this article intends to also do.
One of the “ISA opponents” at Malaysia Today demonstrated this well: “If Ahmad Ismail alone was arrested I am sure most Malaysians would not protest against the ISA. Unfortunately, between Ahmad and [Sin Chew Daily journalist] Tan Hoon Cheng they arrested Tan instead of the perpetrator. This goes to show the authorities are abusing their powers by using the ISA to clamp down on dissent.”
Another concurred: “If [Tan Hoon Cheng] stood beside Ahmad, guess who’s more likely to cause racial tension? Yet they arrested Tan and went on record to tell the rakyat they wanted to protect Tan.”
For these readers, the problem with the ISA is that it is “abused”, not that preventive detention is inherently wrong. A bad government uses the law on good people, so this is a bad law. But what if a good government uses the law on bad people? Would the ISA still be bad then?
Detainees being watched by military police in Camp X-Ray of Guantanamo Bay, Jan 2002
(Public domain. Source: wikipedia.org)
If our sense of right and wrong shifts according to circumstances, whether the parties are our friends or enemies, is this not tribalism? And if so, how are we different from the proponents of the ISA and Guantanamo Bay? And what moral high ground would we have to point fingers at them?
But if anything has increased since the 8 March elections, it is finger-pointing at Umno and the BN as if they are the embodiment of all evils in Malaysia.
I am not defending Umno and BN. Those searching for a conspiracy theory to explain the anomaly of a fair commentator would be disappointed to know that I have no reason to support the ruling coalition.
I have been told twice that I would be detained under the ISA — once in 2000 and then again in November, 2007. I wasn’t detained either time but I was briefly held by the police in 2007 at around this time for attending a press conference in Parliament.
(bicycle © Marija Jure / sxc.hu)
And I believe Umno and the BN are beyond repair until they lose the elections. Even Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s so-called legacies are pathetic half-baked measures that make former Indonesian President BJ Habibie look like a giant. And the police are increasingly paranoid and mentally unstable to fear not only citizens singing the national anthem, but also citizens riding bicycles!
BJ Habibie (public domain.
So, I cannot wait to celebrate the day the Umno-BN dominance ends. But that does not mean that I think Umno-BN is the root cause of all evils, and everyone who opposes Umno-BN is good.
Umno-BN is as Malaysian as their critics are. And how many of us can claim that we do not share any of Umno-BN’s sins to varying degrees?
Talk about intolerance, how many of us have not asked our opponents to shut up, if not also threatened to lock them up? Talk about corruption or privileges, how many of us have not looked for the easy way out? Talk about breaking laws, how many of us have not talked on the mobile phone while driving or supported the pirate DVD industry?
As Malay wisdom reminds us, when we point a finger at others, we point the remaining four at ourselves.
While having the moral courage to speak up against injustice is admirable, self-righteousness is not. But it certainly is useful in political mobilisation and in scoring political goals. That’s what took George Bush’s army to Iraq, the terrorists to Mumbai, and the anti-democratic People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to Bangkok airports.
So, the question is really this: is overthrowing Umno-BN the overriding concern, even if it means we imitate Umno-BN to achieve that goal? Or is it building a country free from the perils characteristic of Umno-BN’s reign, even if this means giving the ruling coalition more room and time to breath?
If your answer is the former, then really anything goes. Defections? Why not? Courting unelected institutions? Why not? Mobilisation through collective excitement? Why not?
However, if your answer is the latter, then we need a bit more humility to share in the responsibility of Umno-BN’s sins. If the Umno-BN reign is truly such a nightmare, then we would have to assume even greater responsibility, like the Germans for Nazi atrocities.
Participants of Bersih’s first anniversary (file pic)
Umno-BN supply what we demand for they have not ruled us with violence or threats. They have won 13 elections since 1955. Yes, I know how they have benefited from election-rigging because I drafted most of Bersih‘s press statements condemning this. But they have enjoyed more than half of the popular votes in perhaps all but three elections, even after discounting the fraud.
Back to the hypothetical question above, why should I defend the citizenship of someone who denies mine by calling me pendatang? Because I would not reduce myself to his or her level (pardon my pride).
Behind the labeling of immigrants or squatters is a “holier-than-thou” attitude in judging someone else’s eligibility to be a citizen — whether it is the person’s lineage, language, foreign contact, values, or behaviour. It is McCarthyism in a generic sense.
A sovereign state has every right to impose conditions on naturalisation for citizen wannabes, but on what grounds can one be rightly deprived of citizenship? In a world so dominated by nation states that stateless people are denied so many rights, citizenship is virtually a fundamental human right.
Tanah tumpahnya darah
On 14 Dec, I paid tribute, together with hundreds of Malaysians, to Chinese educationist Lim Lian Geok, who died 23 years ago. Little known by other Malaysians, he was revered as the “soul of the community” by Chinese Malaysians.
But he was deprived of his citizenship in 1961. His “sin”? Opposing the “final solution” in the Rahman Talib Report that there should eventually be only one stream of schooling in Malaysia.
Lim was not your stereotypical Chinese chauvinist. He was perhaps the first Chinese Malaysian leader who called for policies to support marginalised ethnic communities, 15 years before the New Economic Policy. And he did this in his 1956 Aidil Fitri message, again, unprecedentedly, published in Utusan Melayu.
Should a man, who called on all Malayans to love and support each other as family members, be deprived of his citizenship just because he had a vision of nationhood different from the government’s?
Ahmad is no comparison to Lim. But would it be justified to deprive Ahmad’s citizenship for repeating his penumpang remarks?
No, as much as I don’t want to live in a Hobbesian Malaysia, I loathe a McCarthyist Malaysia which judges the Malaysianess or un-Malaysianess of any citizen according to an ideal. Regardless if that ideal is articulated in Malay supremacist, Islamist, socialist, pluralist, or liberal language.
The late Toni Kasim (pic courtesy of Ezrena Marwan)
I want a Voltairean Malaysia. To paraphrase my late friend, activist Toni Kasim, “the Malaysia we fight for shall include you, even if the Malaysia you fight for may exclude us.”
So, I shall defend Ahmad’s right to call me a pendatang or penumpang. Just as I would an Islamist’s right to peacefully advocate for an Islamic state — despite my opposition to the idea — because he is my brother or she my sister.
They are as much a progeny of Bumi Malaysia as I am. That gives us equal fundamental liberties, enshrined in the Federal Constitution, on which no political correctness should reign.
That’s jus soli. That’s social contract — not compromise, not tolerance, but a mystical coincidence that we were born to the same land and are bound by this tanah tumpahnya darahku.
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”.