Thursday, September 11, 2008

The General and the boat

Yes, I submit to you that the Armed Forces chief general Abdul Aziz Zainal missed the boat when he suggested that ‘Racial issues are the most feared by security forces as they could lead to chaos. They are a security threat.’ It seems Rafidah Aziz also shares this perspective: ‘Let’s stop talking about sensitive issues.’

I compliment the PAS Youth chief Salahuddin Ayub for rightly pointing out that such comments by the good General may unwittingly enable some to politicise his comments and exploit the situation to consolidate power.

However, my purpose here is to raise a more fundamental fallacy associated with the General’s (and Rafidah’s) remarks.

Perhaps it would be prudent for us to see through the clutter and understand that we should not formally or informally condone censorship. Rather, we are better off when we can agree to dialogue about differences amongst ourselves. The implication of the General’s remarks, unfortunately, only reinforces a mindset and culture that we cannot, as a society, undertake and tolerate serious dialogue; especially dialogue of sensitive issues. As Malaysians, we ought to be working toward being able to dialogue about all issues without fear of being harassed and intimidated. We cannot progress without allowing ideas to be articulated and debated.

Contrary to the General’s remarks, it is not the discussion of ‘racial issues’ and ‘sensitive ideas’ that we must fear, condemn, and curtail; rather, it is the incitement of violence and violence itself that we must reject, condemn and rightly outlaw. I for one am confident that when we deliberate openly and freely, credible facts and truth prevails over distortions and falsehoods.

For this very reason, for example, distortions about non-Malays as ‘pendatang’ or ‘squatters’ can only be discredited and debunked factually when those misguided perspectives can be challenged openly and debated; not merely suppressed. In this same manner, the sensitive issue about religious conversion can only be thoughtfully debated and solutions developed when we are able to forum and dialogue about it – just as the Bar Council tried to do some weeks back - and not by suppressing such speech because it is ‘sensitive.’ And we’re certainly not better off by allowing such civil dialogue to be suppressed by mobs and thugs.

Surely if we learn to allow credible public dialogue and facilitate it by respecting the right of individuals to express their perspectives – without engaging in conduct that is clearly unbecoming and criminal, then we are better off for it. This approach may not be perfect, but it is far better than censoring speech.

Equally important, there is a glaring fallacy in the General’s comment (as in Rafidah’s), and it is that because dialogue about ‘racial issues…could lead to chaos,’ therefore it must be suppressed. That’s akin to saying that because religion ‘could lead to’ some people becoming fanatics and even terrorists, therefore we should ban religion. Obviously that’s not the sensible response. We should expose and discredit the people who abuse religion to justify terrorism and violence; not ban religion altogether. In the same way, we should not censor genuine dialogue about racial issues, but rightly discredit, de-legitimise and hold accountable people who use racial issues as a pretext for intimidating others, perpetrating or inciting violence.

Civilised dialogue is education, and civil dialogue about ‘sensitive issues’ is education about ‘sensitive issue.’ This is good because civil dialogue is – by definition – not motivated by threats, intimidation or the spectre of violence; quite the contrary.

Let’s keep such civilised dialogue separate from language that advocates and incite hate or violence.

By all means, let’s be clear that it’s not civilised dialogue – even of sensitive issues that is a security threat. It is violence inciting rhetoric and hate speech that is a security threat.

Let’s not miss the boat on this difference.

G. Krishnan