Infant formula does play tricks on babies, giving them the impression that it’s ‘the real thing.’ But of course infant formula is never equivalent to mother’s milk. In this vein, you can think of civilised free speech as the mother’s milk of a democracy. You see, a society cannot legitimately live up to the promise of democracy without a serious commitment and respect for free speech. Sure, there may be many who might pretend to be committed to free speech. And like milk, they will tell us that the infant formula they’re peddling is as good as – if not actually – mother’s milk.
The recent suspension of Zahar Hashim for apparently criticising the top brass of Umnoputeras is simply the latest reminder to us that the dominant political regime seems only superficially committed to the culture of democracy – where leaders are not beyond reproach and criticism. Indeed, in a credible democracy, political leaders ought to be able to withstand criticism – from all quarters, and arguably, especially from those of ones own political persuasion. It’s truly revealing when a party’s inner circle becomes so self-absorbed as to become punitive of its members for taking the leadership to task. Yet the experience and record of the dominant Barisan Nasional parties in this regard is as obvious as the communalism that is embedded in them.
If only I had a ringgit for each time I’ve come across news stories of one or another party insider of one of the BN parties being banished for apparently challenging or criticising the party’s leadership. As much as the pomp and circumstance of these parties projects otherwise, there seems to be a clear anti-democratic orthodoxy that underlies and pervades the culture of these parties. Yes, they spew the rhetoric of democracy at every opportunity. I can see how some may well view this disconnect as indicative of the hypocrisy prevalent among these parties.
Whilst the charge of hypocrisy may be apt, it is arguably not as damaging as the illusion of democracy that these parties project. For the latter, has far greater consequences for the health of the nation; much like the propensity for infant formula to be an inadequate substitute for mother’s milk. Yet, infant formula – like these political parties - is often portrayed as giving us ‘the real thing.’ It cannot – it simply does not have the real ingredients!
Democracy requires that there be a deep respect for the ideal of free speech. And mind you, much of the time – not sometimes – free speech in a democracy generates differences of perspective and even controversy. A leader’s credibility and ‘legitimacy’ is not predicated on the suppression or containment of debate, but rather on one’s ability to stand on the merits of one’s ideas and to gander the support based on those merits. That is not to say that individuals cannot be suspended or expelled, for example, for insubordination, for violating particular ethical or other technical rules of a party.
But when leaders began to silence their critics and impose a particular orthodoxy which practically mandates conformity, such practices are anything but democratic.