Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Democracy: debate, not intimidate

In all the heated verbal assaults, public posturing, muscle flexing and sectarian threats emanating from the Penang Umno demagogue Ahmad Ismail, I’m reminded of how easy it is for opportunists to distort, spin, and be deflected from the real issues. But more critically, it reveals just how far we have yet to go to cultivate a democratic culture.

It is quite revealing how Ahmad Ismail and his ilk – seemingly without much regard for logic – have been able to translate the outcry about his alleged ‘insensitive’ reference to Chinese as ‘squatters’ into a perceived assault on Malay dignity and rights by the Chinese. First, any reasonable person should see that there is no logical connection between the calls for him to apologise and the latter. Second, that nothing expressed in all the calls for him to apologise for his remarks about the Chinese can be construed as undermining Malay interests.

The fact that elements within the Umno branches in Penang have found it convenient and opportune to manipulate the pressure on Ahmad to apologise by unleashing a racist laden verbal assault and sectarian threats toward the Chinese - seemingly trying to exploit and stoke the flames of communalism - should be roundly and loudly condemned, and especially so by the Umno hierarchy.

It cannot but be obvious even to the most juvenile of minds, that there was nothing anti-Malay expressed by all those chorus of voices urging and calling for Ahmad to apologise for his apparent insensitive remarks. And of course he is entitled to his view that he said nothing offensive or that he was misinterpreted. However, any dispute about what he actually uttered at a ceramah during the Permatang Pauh campaign is not, and cannot be allowed, to be a basis for stoking and delivering threats that verge on inciting sectarian violence.

If this manipulation and stoking of communal sentiments is symptomatic of some politicians’ obsession with holding on to power, it is all the more imperative that we remind ourselves and especially the Umno brass that they are not by any means the sole or preordained ‘preservers’ of the Constitution or ‘Malay rights.’ This fallacy and confusion, one of equating Umno as seemingly synonymous with ‘Malay rights,’ must be detangled. ‘Malay rights’ – as the rights of all Malaysians - are protected by the Constitution, not by Umno. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that regardless of the party in government, the rule of law within the framework of the Constitution must prevail.

And when elements within the political establishment seek to undermine the rule of law and democratic culture by resorting to provocative and potentially inciting language, such elements must be duly discredited and banished. It is one thing to agree to disagree on principles, priorities, and perspective; it is quite another to resort to threats of violence in order to intimidate and suppress.

A democratic culture is defined by the ability to accommodate different voices, competing perspectives and visions on how to advance the national good through adherence to the Constitution.

Intimidation, thuggery, and inciting violence are criminal - not democratic - values.

G. Krishnan