Sunday, August 10, 2008

‘Babi! Balik China!’

‘Shouts of “babi”, “pengkhianat” and “balik China” were heard as forum participants trickled out of the venue’ (Malaysiakini )

Reporting on the recent abruptly aborted Bar Council’s forum on ‘Conversion to Islam,’ the Malaysiakini report quoted above noted that approximately 300 protesters had gathered outside the Bar Council’s headquarters where shouts of ‘batal forum’ (cancel the forum) and ‘hancur Bar Council’ (crush the Bar Council) were also heard. So on the advice of the police, the Bar Council called-off the forum.

Score ‘1’ for ‘mob terror’ and ‘0’ for democracy.

Perhaps its time we realise that many in our society remain politically infantile – and far too immature to be considered democrats; that is, having any commitment and appreciation of democratic values. Obviously, if there’s one quality indispensible to democracy, it is the culture of dialogue, discussion, and deliberation of ideas – the ability to engage in free speech – hopefully in a civil and respectful manner. This is precisely what the mob outside the Bar headquarters stood against and, more importantly, also deprived others.

Of course, the protesters have a right to express their dissatisfaction with the forum, whatever it may be. Some may argue those in the mob are even entitled to express their bigotry through shouts of ‘babi’ and ‘balik China.’

But why, we must ask, are those participating in the Bar Council’s forum not entitled to speak and deliberate?

The participants in the Bar Council’s forum were not participating in an illegal gathering; they were not barred from holding the forum; and unlike the protesters, they were not preventing others from expressing their views, let along spouting hate!

What, one has to wonder, were the authorities thinking? It is imperative that rather than repeatedly using the crutch of ‘respecting the sensitivities of others,’ the home minister should be more sensitive to protecting the rights of all citizens – including the right to deliberate and discuss ideas pertinent to democratic discourse. Surely the protesters could have been allowed to express their sentiment – at a safe distance from the Bar’s headquarters while ensuring that those interested in deliberating a salient issue of the day be allowed to exercise their legitimate democratic rights.

Some years ago, the author Salman Rushdie had a fatwa against him and protesters – sometimes violent – demonstrated against the publication of his book, The Satanic Verses. Many of those protesting had never read the book – let alone understood what Rushdie’s book was about.

How, one has to wonder, can some people be stirred into a frenzy about others’ thoughts, viewpoints and ideas, when they have not even heard those supposedly objectionable ideas and comments?

Ironic, isn’t it? The bigots ultimately got to express their bigoted views and objections to the forum, but those gathered peacefully and in a civilised manner to deliberate and dialogue in the forum were censored.

This is not democracy; it's a travesty of democracy.

G. Krishnan