Saturday, August 29, 2009

Separating the Cow from the Bull

It’s comforting, reassuring and eye-opening indeed to see the outpouring of the public’s outrage and condemnation of the despicable demonstration against the proposed Hindu temple in Shah Alam. As I came across the countless comments from Malaysians of all faiths, it occurred to me that we’ve – despite some of the evil in our midst – indeed come a long way.

Of course one might say: but of course the public should be condemning the display of hate and debauchery exhibited by what amounts to a bus-load of vile hate-mongers. Sure, but not too long ago, we probably would not have had the courage to speak as freely and openly about such incidents. And by the way, lest there is any confusion, I’m by no means impressed nor am I commending the BN politicians or the authorities who were seemingly offended and are calling for an investigation of the actions of these people who perpetrated the despicable public demonstration.

Instead, it is the vast cross-section of the public response that is impressive – and rightly so. The actions of the demonstrators crossed all lines of decency and civility. And while I want to affirm, as I imagine all fair-minded Malaysians would, their right to free speech and to publicly express their dissatisfaction with one or another matter, this incident is a fine illustration of the political infantilism and immaturity that clearly still prevails in segments of our population.

However, as so many non-Hindus have already roundly and rightly condemned the demonstrators’ actions and for the tact they took, we should also be careful not to overreact. And I don’t mean just that we should call for calm and not incite further provocation and such. That is self-evident.

What I mean is that we should be careful that this incident doesn’t become a catalyst for the suppression of free speech. These people had a right to express their displeasure about some matter. Their distasteful methods we can condemn but I nonetheless fear the prospect that this episode may be politically exploited and send the struggle for democratic reform tumbling backwards.

Whatever happens, let’s be sure to remain vigilant and not allow the nascent culture of civil discourse and the struggle for more open free speech and a free press be damaged by some who may exploit this incident for some larger political design.

To be sure, the current widespread public response shows that we’ve come a long way in appreciating the value of protest, public demonstrations, and also perhaps accepting the right of our opponents to express their views – and we’ve become better - some notable exceptions notwithstanding - at not reverting to violently attacking those we might disagree with.

Our greatest step forward in nurturing a more democratic culture will be to ensure that we not be driven by fear of candid and even uncomfortable dialogue and deprive others the right to express objectionable and even vile speech.

We cannot afford to have opportunistic politicians turning this incident into another tool for controlling free speech and undercutting democracy.

G. Krishnan