The era of government knows best is over, or so said Prime Minister Najib Razak in the early part of his young administration. As a person who distrusts the government greatly, I consider that there was never a time when the government knows best. Instead, there was only a long period of paternalism where the government tramples over individuals, especially the ones conscious of liberty.
Notwithstanding the issue of trust, when the head of the government says something so liberal, it provides a glimmer of hope that finally there is a window for a liberal democratic era, however minute the opening might be. What happened in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, as the authority responded to the anti-Internal Security Act march, quickly proves that it is a false window opening to a sordid wall painted blue. In the end, we are still in a small stuffy room imprisoning us all, with blue sky nowhere in sight.
The Barisan Nasional federal government possibly sees the worst in all individuals when it comes to the exercise of freedom of assembly. It takes an almost Hobbesian view in a sense that any assembly in an open public space will degenerate into a rampage. Without control, chaos will reign, as Thomas Hobbes more or less stated in the Leviathan.
It is most unfortunate for history to side with those in Malaysia holding an overly pessimistic view of human nature. The racial riot of May 13, 1969, which has become a boogeyman of sorts that those in power have used time and again to cow individuals from discussing so-called sensitive racial issues so openly, began after groups paraded through parts of Kuala Lumpur. In 1964 in Singapore, at a time when the island city was an integral part of the Malaysian federation, a racial riot that has largely been forgotten by most — even by some in the older generations who accuse the younger generation of being ignorant about the history of the country — was also sparked by parading groups.
If indeed that is the cause of its hostile view towards the exercise of freedom of assembly, then the Barisan Nasional government needs to mature in democratic and liberal terms in order to keep up with Malaysia’s maturing civil society.
The way these protests are carried out and handled — by protesters, by those who disagree with the protesters as well as the authorities – is crucial in the training and inculcation of the culture of liberty by civil society. As long as the authorities continue to assume the worst in individuals, the training will not go far. A government that is still hung up on past fears will become a substantial barrier to the development of civil society.
Peaceful protests happen frequently in developed parts of world for various causes. What any mature government would do with respect to freedom of assembly is to have police officers and other authorities stationed at multiple locations to ensure that these assemblies, either supportive of the government or otherwise, remain largely peaceful. Anyone who causes damage to public property or hurts another person can simply be arrested. There is no problem with that. Furthermore, those interested to keep the assemblies peaceful will agree with that too.
How many times have the authorities failed to suppress peaceful marches only to have the marches end up being peaceful in Malaysia in recent times?
The Bersih march on Nov 10, 2007 ended up peacefully. There was no damage to public property, almost nobody was harmed — and if they were harmed, it was because the police fired tear gas and water cannons before relenting for some reason – and the organisers even picked up trash left behind!
The same goes with the march by lawyers as well as other sympathisers that occurred in September 2007.
This is definitely a sign of a maturing civil society. These groups are conscious of their liberty as well as the associated responsibility that comes with it.
To suppress large peaceful assemblies, like what happened on Saturday and on various occasions in the past, is to turn everything unnecessarily ugly. Actions taken by the authority on Saturday, either in the form of roadblocks or actual coercion, unnecessarily exacerbate the whole episode.
Kuala Lumpur would have not turned into a war zone if the authorities did not suppress the march. Shops would not have to close temporarily if the authorities simply respected the individual’s freedom to assembly. Commuters would not have to suffer hours in traffic if the authorities had taken a liberal stance. Malaysia would not have been painted in such a bad light by the international media.
Perhaps, the government is worried what happened in Bangkok would repeat itself in Kuala Lumpur. Before that track of thought is taken up, it is imperative to realise that the motive in Kuala Lumpur is very different from the one in Bangkok. The one in Bangkok was explicit in its intention to lay prolonged siege on important public institutions. That was never the goal in Kuala Lumpur. Those participating in the anti-Internal Security Act march in Kuala Lumpur are far too respectful of democratic ideals to supplant the legitimacy of the ballot box.
Yet, judging by the inconsistency shown by the Barisan Nasional government, it is not truly a Hobbesian view that it takes. Even if one disagrees with the idea that by nature humans are chaotic beings, the sincerity of a Hobbesian view cannot be denied if he or she takes a consistent stance on the matter. For the Barisan Nasional government, it is only almost a Hobbesian position because there is no sincerity. It is only almost Hobbesian because only assemblies expressing dissatisfaction against the Barisan Nasional government have its participants risking becoming victims of the state security apparatus, or really, given the absence of a necessary separation between the state and a political party that is required to avoid abuse of power, victims of Barisan Nasional’s apparatchiks rather than the state security apparatus.
When some students of Universiti Teknologi Mara took to the streets to protest against Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s suggestion that the institution should slightly liberalise its intake to include some non-Malays to encourage competition in that tertiary education institution, these apparatchiks stood silent, and perhaps, even approvingly. Meanwhile, peaceful candlelight vigils held in protest against police actions irreverent to the idea of liberty in the past have been forcefully dispersed.
In stark contrast to actions taken on Saturday by the police, juveniles were arrested and handcuffed to be treated like common thieves, while actual common thieves ran loose on the streets. The hypocrisy displayed cannot be any clearer.
A proper Hobbesian government will act consistently towards all assemblies and the Barisan Nasional government is no Hobbesian government. Its tolerance to peaceful assemblies depends on who participates and what those assemblies are about, not how peaceful they are. The fact that these assemblies are peaceful are of no consequence to actions taken by these apparatchiks to suppress individual liberty, be it the firing of a water cannon or a stormtrooper shooting teargas to politically conscious but otherwise unarmed and unaggressive individuals.
The inconsistency demonstrated by the Barisan Nasional government is worse than a Hobbesian government. It is a kind of paternalism, which leads to tyranny. They will argue that it is for the best for the country but really, it is only the best action for them to remain in power.
The ideals that Barisan Nasional holds mostly are corporatist, one based on ethnicity. The idea of individual liberty, if it is allowed and encouraged to take its rational course, will dismantle any corporatist set-up. For Barisan Nasional to remain in power while holding to its corporatist ideal, it is in its interest to curb liberty, as it did on Saturday.
Therefore, the era of paternalism is not over. It will be over only when Barisan Nasional evolves or is replaced by a more liberal democratic government. This kind of evolution however is not in its menu.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on August 3 2009.