Manufactured fear

It was a sombre September 16 as I spent my time following the Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu or “red shirt” rally via online news portals and the sharing of photos and videos on social media. There was one specific video that struck me, a lady in her very angry tone saying, “Enough is enough. Babi is babi!” Some said I should not be too shocked with the racist hate speeches and all the hatred messages. Well, I am all for the right to peaceful assembly, but racist hate speech has absolutely no place in our society. Some sincerely believe that skin color no longer matters. But there are also some believing the other extreme, that racism is at the root of nearly every problem.

Is racism really alive in this country? I am not sure if I should understand the September 16 event as a sign that frustration has reached its peak and was boiling over, because the boiling point could also be “manufactured”. It could simply be our perception. Having said that, I am going to discuss the “Bersih 4 vs ‘red shirt’” issue from a social movement perspective.

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A year of dissent and repression

It is that time of the year again. Ask any Malaysian on their reflections in 2015, you would probably get some similar answers. They would possibly tell you that life is getting tougher with everything becoming unaffordable. Some would probably tell you about the mess that our country is getting into, politically.

I was in a shop yesterday, and overheard the worker telling a customer that the price of goods could cost more next year. The customer sarcastically replied, “We must thank Najib for that.” Price hikes undoubtedly affect everything we use in daily life. With trust deficit in our leadership, Malaysians are frustrated by an unaccountable government, demands were dismissed, while dissenters were slammed under various laws. Look at the various draconian laws that the government has introduced and amended, for instance, Prevention of Terrorism Act, Sedition Act and the latest, National Security Council Bill. These laws share one common characteristic: repression on our fundamental liberties.

I was in Jakarta last week for a conference. Most of the international participants that I met asked me the same question: what is going on in Malaysia? It is like the hardest logic puzzles ever created and from time to time, the puzzle seems to get more challenging with some missing pieces. Now, it seems to reach a stage where it is just difficult to comprehend. The controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement left us in limbo, as there are still many vague areas to be explained.

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Seek ‘permission’ before penning your thoughts

No matter how much you love writing, there will be times when you are desperate for inspiration. And sometimes, the inspiration could come from the most unlikely of sources. Last week, I received a call from a friend in Sarawak. He suggested that maybe it was timely to write about the role of an academic and also academic freedom. But I told him that I had highlighted issues related to academic freedom numerous times in the past. Hence, I am not sure if this would be a good idea, as the readers might get bored. A few days passed and here I am. I changed my mind and I decided to take stock and consider what an academic really is. I visualised that the academic of the future would be known as more of a thought leader or professional thinker, rather than someone who is tied to an institution. A career that is built along these lines could actually open up more space for freedom of thought. At the same time, it would allow for more opportunities to initiate work that would eventually contribute to society. More importantly, it would allow for a much deeper understanding of actual problems in practice.

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Suppressing dissenters stifles democracy

Dissent is one of the central elements of democracy. But when such dissenting voices start to make the leaders feel threatened, they normally opt for an offensive approach – that is, by labelling a person a traitor. But, we have to recognise that constructive criticism against one’s government is not sedition, rather, according to the American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, dissent is the highest form of patriotism. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) faces continuous calls for political and legislative reforms, particularly since the 2008 general election, where they lost the two-thirds majority in Parliament. These pressures come from not only the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), but also from the civil society that has been expanding ever since. Since then, more warnings have become visible of the leadership’s anxiety about these appeals for greater freedom and democracy in the country.

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Protesters are not criminals

May Day last Friday witnessed thousands of Malaysians taking to the streets to demand that the goods and services tax (GST) be abolished. More than two dozen protesters, including activists and opposition politicians, were arrested. Similar to the March 7 #KitaLawan rally, the arrests only started after the rally. Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, former Bersih 2.0 co-chair and former president of Malaysian Bar, was among those arrested. Also arrested were Seremban member of parliament (MP) Anthony Loke, Kuala Krai MP Dr Hatta Ramli, Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli, Batu MP Tian Chua, Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) secretary-general S. Arutchelvan and activist Hishamuddin Rais. Tian Chua was arrested after speaking at a Permatang Pauh by-election ceramah and reportedly treated roughly by the police.

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