Saturday, August 1, 2009

Najib, Mobs, and Demonstrations

Umno politicians are good at talking about democracy but time and again, it is blatantly transparent precisely how far they really have to go to even understand what it means – let alone be able to practice it in any meaningful way.

Shockingly, we find the prime minister himself susceptible to this pitiful flaw. The premier says: “Demonstrations will not solve any problems,” seemingly giving credence to the view that such a public protest is “pointless.”

Ironic, isn't it? I wonder if he feels that way about one infamous Umno demonstration back in 1987.

How so revealing is the premier’s perspective. Some might say perhaps he ought to air such comments each time the Umno goons take to the streets to drive home a point or to rebel rouse or intimidate others. The critics are to some extent correct that shockingly, there tends to be deafening silence in such situations.

However, that’s not the basis of my concern. What actually does concern me is the lack of understanding of the imperative of the public’s right to free speech – in all its forms and manifestations. Just because the government is apparently already undertaking a review of the ISA does not mean that there is no value to a segment of society expressing its voice. The expression of the public’s sentiment is the mother’s milk of democracy. Demonstrations do matter – it is not that they don’t solve anything. That’s not the point. The fact is, public protests are not “for solving problems.” We’re not fools that we don’t know this much.

Peaceful public protests and demonstrations, like other avenues of expression, are means for reaffirming and practicing democracy. Democracy is not just about having elections, meetings and, in this case, a highly controlled and micro-managed theatre in parliament. Lest we be reminded that democracy also requires that there be genuine outlets for free speech and a free press. And just for the record, as much as I might loathe the drivel and incendiary racist garbage that gets published and broadcasted in the regime’s propaganda outlets, this too must be tolerated. But of course this alone is not sufficient. There must be a free press – not a muzzled and regulated press. That’s right: A free press.

And just as a free press is one of the essential and indispensible ingredients of a democratic culture, so is the people’s voice. Peaceful demonstrations have always been part and parcel of the democratic tradition. That should be as self evident as the fact that what we have today is a government with a pathetic record of protecting the public from the abuse of power and crime.

And speaking of crime let me tell you what will actually “not solve any problems” and be “pointless.” Re-legitimating vigilantism. This idea of the government’s to reduce the crime rate by unleashing – once again – mobs such as RELA is frankly a disaster in the making. The fact that the regime has to turn to such measures is not only indication of just how pathetic and flawed our law enforcement system has become; indeed, if there was any yard-stick to measure its failure, surely this is it.

To rely on what are essentially ill-trained, unprofessional and unaccountable mobs to enforce the law speaks volumes of how pathetically inept the government has become in its most elementary of responsibilities to the public it serves. In fact, democratic rule would surely require that such regimes be put out to pasture.

Too bad, isn’t it? Yet again, Najib has gotten it wrong and shown a frightening disregard for democracy.

G. Krishnan