LAST week, in the middle of yoga class, our petite instructor interrupted our asanas to tell us she’d heard there was trouble on the streets. “Go home straightaway after class. Don’t stay out tonight,” she warned, adding something or other about those who lived in Chinese neighbourhoods.
Earlier that Friday of 5 Sept 2008, an SMS had circulated claiming there would be simultaneous press conferences at 3pm by the Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties of Gerakan, PPP, SAPP, SPDP, Upko, LDP and PBS, announcing their withdrawal from the coalition.
“They will also (sic) be the first block crossover to Pakatan,” the SMS declared.
The message didn’t take very long to spread, and soon, most of us in the newsroom were plied with questions from family and friends. Was the government falling? Would there be trouble? So while it was disconcerting to hear my yoga instructor’s warning, it wasn’t unexpected.
This climate of fear has been coagulating even more over the past week, especially with the furore over the continuous incendiary remarks by Bukit Bendera Umno division chairperson Datuk Ahmad Ismail.
Fanning the flame further were his supporters’ aggressive antics during a press conference that included threatening a journalist from The Edge Financial Daily with shouts of, among others, “Bunuh dia!” just because she tried to ask a question.
Even Armed Forces chief Jeneral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Zainal has weighed in, telling the government that stern action must be taken against those who whip up racial sentiments, because race riots are the country’s main security threat.
Ahmad Ismail and his supporters at a press conference
(Pic courtesy of Oriental Daily)Not just Umno
If certain Umno leaders are made to apologise for remarks that are obviously hurtful — and some may even say hateful — towards fellow citizens, some Umno members have responded by threatening a “bloodbath” and the imminent repeat of 13 May 1969.
Still, it is not only Umno that is creating the jitters; also responsible are Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders.
At an 8 Sept press conference, PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali said the country had to brace itself for a worst-case scenario if enough BN Members of Parliament (MPs) crossed over to the Pakatan Rakyat for the Pakatan to form a new government. This scenario, he projected, would include the government stirring up unrest, declaring a state of emergency, and carrying out mass arrests.
Then a joint press statement on 9 Sept by the National Alliance of Bloggers and the Centre for Policy Initiatives issued an SOS on Raja Petra Kamarudin, saying that the government was contemplating detaining without trial the prominent Malaysia-Today blogger under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
To be fair, these fears are well-founded, even if they do add more tension in the air. The ISA has been used numerous times before to silence opposition. Most dramatically, it was used by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1987 during Operation Lallang, at a time when Umno was fighting its own internal crisis. More recently, the ISA has been used to detain five Hindraf leaders.
The ISA continues to be used, and those in power continue to wield it publicly. For instance, in response to opposition to the Bar Council’s 9 Aug forum on conversion, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar was reported to have said that while the ISA should not be used wantonly, the ministry would consider using it. Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam was more direct: he called for the ISA to be used on the Bar Council. Even Wanita Gerakan has asked for the ISA to be used against Ahmad for his intransigence.
Surely there are other ways of dealing with threatening acts and words instead of resorting to an unjust weapon of terror like the ISA or even the Sedition Act? Perhaps we can all learn from the joint statement initiated by the Writer Alliance for Media Independence.
Unfortunately, the threat of Malays being easily provoked and/or rioting in order to protect “bangsa dan agama” is constantly reinforced by some government leaders, most notably Umno leaders. For example, the remarks by Ahmad and his supporters. For example, also, the statements from Syed Hamid, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi regarding the Bar Council forum.
It would seem that Malay Muslims are easily incited into irrationally aggressive behaviour if we are to believe these politicians. Unfortunately, one is wont to believe this is true from the behaviour and language of Ahmad and his supporters, and from the recent opposition outside the Bar Council.
And yet, we really should be circumspect about these fears of the “easily provoked” Malay Muslim going amok because s/he is not capable of engaging in rational and respectful dialogue. For the most part, the statements and behaviour that’s been played out on the national stage is about a self-fulfilling threat to all citizens, regardless of our ethnicity.
Ahmad has declared he is considered a Malay “nationalist” by some quarters because of his statements. Indeed, it is precisely because the BN continues to perpetuate race-based politics, and promote race-based privileges over needs-based policies, that comments that are hurtful to fellow Malaysians can be considered nationalist.
As we approach celebrating Malaysia Day on 16 Sept, I reckon that apart from worrying if some MPs will unethically hop over to the Pakatan Rakyat, Malaysians need to be wary of the politicians and communal leaders who speak the language of fear and act in terrorising ways.
This country belongs to all of us. The only Malaysian citizens who are not from a migrant stock are the indigenous peoples of this land (and they are not the ones calling for the blood of fellow citizens). Hence, we all have a stake in this country, and we should not be cowed by the culture of fear that is being cultivated by those in power.
Jacqueline Ann Surin is enjoying buka puasa with her fellow citizens during this Ramadan. She is looking forward to celebrating Hari Raya Aidilfitri in a climate of warm generosity and mutual respect that makes Malaysia home for her and others.