Bersih march: The aftermath

Sim Kwang Yang (Malaysiakini)
Nov 24, 07

Two weeks after the Bersih march for electoral clean up on Nov 10 in Kuala Lumpur, the mainstream media is still immersed in a frenzy of discussion about the merit and demerit of the event. This is a clear sign that the political establishment must have felt jolted out of their complacent comfort zone by the massive show of defiance against all the threats of arrests and reprisals.

To call the noise bandying about in the mainstream media a “discussion” is a bit of a misnomer. Often, the deluge of opinions from politicians, commentators, and even letter-writers were a monologue issuing forth from one side only. It has been nothing but a monologic declaration of displeasure, gall, anger, and condemnation. You hardly hear anything from the Bersih people in self-defence.
It is a sad state of affair that our national media has degenerated into an instrument for dominant political power to engage in shadow boxing, but what else is new in Malaysia? This is the sort of things that justify the action of the Bersih alliance: without a free press, our elections cannot be free and fair.
My friend Wong Chin Fatt has written a paper describing Malaysia as an electoral one-party state. It is a form of soft totalitarianism, where one political party rules almost absolutely, even though elections are held one every so often.
A rare voice of reason
Fortunately for us, our brand of totalitarianism is slightly better than that in  Burma, North Korea, or even China. Even in our mainstream press, you still hear the rare and odd voices of reason and critical independence.
One such voice is A Veera Pandiyan, the Deputy Editor of the New Media. In his article entitled “Media needs to be effective” appearing in his column Along the Watch Tower in the Star on Nov 22, he quoted profusely and aptly from George Orwell and concluded as follows:
“Coming back to predicament faced by the local media, the crux of the matter revolves round the misconception that journalists should report only the “good news” rather than focus on ‘negative angles.’”
“What is the true valuation of the Malaysian media? Generally, it has been accused of mostly performing a quasi-public relation role.”
“Critics claim that this has led to a shortage incisive intelligent debates and the elevation of the most mundane nonsensical arguments to absurd levels of respectability.”
(When I read this, I immediately recalled how the “most mundane nonsensical arguments” of the information minister and the de facto law minister in recent weeks have been elevated to “absurd levels of respectability”.)
Pandiyan then went on to conclude:
“To go back to the basics, the principle of journalism is to provide information to the interest of the public. To be an effective watchdog, it must act friendly or fierce as and when the need arises.”
“Its role is crucial for the creation of a well-informed society in which people can discuss issues openly and make the wisest decision.”
“In the final analysis, a country is judged by the credence of its news coverage. As such, the trustworthiness of the media should be the concern of all – from political leaders, academics, educationists, and social activists to the man-in-the-street – instead of being a plight of its practitioners. All must share the blame if the media’s credibility is allowed to go to the dogs.”
He ended his article with a quotation from Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Very well said indeed! By his criteria, our national media has gone almost all the way to the dogs!
A king for all Malaysians
Another voice of reason is Tunku Abdul Aziz, a former advisor to the UN secretary general on ethics. He wrote a commentary on the Bersih march entitled “Wrong to link the king to demo”, which was published in the NST on Nov 18. Though he concluded that the government would do well to pay heed to the demand of Bersih as contained in the petition presented to the king, he insisted that the king should not have been dragged into politics.
Here, I beg to differ. I do not think that presenting the petition to the king on Nov 10 at the national palace is an act of sabotaging the relationship between the king and the prime minister.
The institution of the Malaysian king is an integral part of our body politics. Together with the upper and the lower houses, the king constitutes the Parliament. Until the former PM initiated the constitutional crisis in the 80s, all bills passed by both houses of Parliament had to be signed by the king to become law. Besides being the symbolic head of Malaysia’s sovereignty, the king is also the fountain of justice.
As constitutional monarchs, our kings do not have executive powers, and they act in the public sphere entirely on the advice of the prime minister. (Even this point could be debated.) That does not mean that the king is a mere puppet.
In choosing to accept the petition presented by Bersih, the king has shown his self-image as a king for all Malaysians. Of course, the king cannot tell the PM to clean up the poll as Bersih has demanded; he has no such powers.
Naturally, the institution of the king is above party politics. But the king is not above playing a public role as the sovereign sensitive to reasonable voices from his subjects. That ought to be part of his duty. The PM is the one who politicises the institution of the royalty, by the allegation that the opposition parties had dragged the king into partisanship. This PM is increasingly like the former PM in making “the most mundane and nonsensical arguments’ at times.
Legal positivism

Where I disagree radically with Tunku Abdul Aziz concerns his view that “What is legally indefensible cannot be morally or ethically right.”
His position is best described in jurisprudence as legal positivism, to which I think most Malaysian lawyers would subscribe. I propose that this matter of the relation between law and morality is much more complex than that, and has engaged Western societies since the time of Socrates. The Nuremberg Trial of German wartime criminals after WW2 ended did spark off another round of very acrimonious debate among politicians, legal practitioners, and great thinkers in the teaching of jurisprudence.
In brief, legal positivism believes that a law is a law, and has to be obeyed absolutely, as long as it is enacted according to due process of law. Their opponents, the Natural Law theorists, argue that a law is never just a law. It is either a good law, or a bad law. A bad law may be legislated legally, but it may be unjust and immoral.
To obey unjust laws blindly then makes a citizen into an accessory in the perpetuation of injustice. Since a law can be immoral, and it cannot be changed by an unjust government, then a just person will have to disobey the law peacefully, without doing violence to anybody.
The perfect example of an unjust law is the body of regulations that discriminate against the Blacks in the US. Civil disobedience was the principle weapon in the hands of Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement that changed much of the political landscape in the US in the 1970s.
In short, the police should not treat the Bersih or other group of “illegal” protesters in the same way as they ought to treat the Mat Rempits, as Tunku Abdul Aziz suggested. The reductive comparison masks the complexity of the law.
In a land saturated in injustices, such as Burma or Pakistan, what is legally indefensible may be morally just indeed!
The core question to be asked is this: is our nation still living in a never-ending state of Emergency so that the laws and regulations banning public assembly of citizens can be justified?
My answer is no. You may disagree. So let us engage in a reasonable debate.
By the way, I should clarify that this question should not be settled by the Inspector General of Police alone, since we are not living in a police state. This question is for “political leaders, academics, educationists and social activists to the man-in-the-street” (Pandiyan’s words) so that “people can discuss issues openly and make the wisest decision.”
Then, we will be taking the first tentative step on the long and winding road towards a First World mentality.