It's hard to listen to the people while you gas them in the face
Written by Farish A. Noor
Thursday, 13 December 2007

Once in a blue moon, in the developing world there appears that rare sort of politician who claims that he wants to listen to the people and take them into account. Of course the sighting of these rare characters is greeted with some degree of elation and relief, a bit like witnessing a lunar eclipse or winning a small lottery: For the developing world is replete with arm-wielding, thug-hugging, testosterone-driven macho-types who often preach their gospel of governance with a club in one hand and the other poised on the trigger.
We have seen this sort of nasty governance in many a developing country: The riot police in South Korea used to have a smiley face on their riot shields, just to add insult to injury when they shot off their tear gas cannisters at point blank range. Indonesian security forces during the time of Suharto used to chat pleasantly with the locals over a cup of tea before they sent in bulldozers to flatten entire villages. Why, even the death squads of Saddam Hussein used to send a bill and invoice to the families of those whose members had been kidnapped and murdered at night.
But there is also that other type of soft authoritarian despot that many of us in the developing world are familiar with by now: These are the more media-savvy types who can at least tie a tie around their necks, feel comfortable in a suit, quote from a novel offhand, and smile at you. Then they do things like place their citizens under detention without trial, have them arrested at dawn while they are asleep in their homes, manipulate the media and control every branch of the government from the legislature to the judiciary.
Looking at the developments in Malaysia of late, one might come to the conclusion that that is precisely the sort of soft authoritarianism that has come to roost. Over the past month the capital of Kuala Lumpur witnessed at least two mammoth demonstrations in a country where the national pastime seems to be shopping: The first was a march organised by the coalition of NGOs called ‘BERSIH’, that called for free and fair elections. The second was a large march organised by the Malaysian Hindu Action Rights Force (HINDRAF) that highlighted the plight of the millions of Malaysian Hindus who remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in the country.
As expected, the Malaysian government’s reaction was to demonise the demonstrators, block the roads, call in the riot police and have the demonstrators arrested, chased and tear-gassed in the streets of the capital. Images of Malaysian citizens being doused by water sprays and gassed appeared instantaneously across the world courtesy of and other internet sites, and the happy fiction of Malaysia being the land of peace and plenty sank accordingly…
But what is most worrisome is the epistemic and cognitive dissonance between the actions of the state and its rhetoric. The administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came to power on a huge mandate and riding on the promise that it would not only clean up the Malaysian political system but also initiate a series of reforms and listen to the people.
Now the last point is terribly important for many Malaysians have always felt that their opinions were of little worth in the eyes of the powers-that-be. The previous administration of Dr Mahathir Mohamad did little to cast any suspicions that it was remotely democratic, and Dr Mahathir even went as far as proclaim his own deep misgivings of democracy and reform. Badawi, on the other hand, tapped into the frustrations of the Malaysians and promised them an outlet by stating that he would take them into account and listen to them But what has been the result?
It could be argued that the two massive demonstrations witnessed in the streets of Kuala Lumpur were precisely instances of public communication. One doesn’t have to be a scholar of semantics or semiotics to see that expressions of public distrust and anger in the public domain is a case of public communication at its most explicit. These were instances of Malaysians saying to the government and to Badawi in particular: “You promised us reforms, but you have not delivered. Now we are excercising our fundamental right to complain.”
But the complaints of the Malaysians were stiffled and silenced by the police sirens and the popping of tear gas cannisters in the streets. Its difficult for any leader to listen to the people when he is gassing them at the same time. Its equally difficult for there to be any meaningful dialogue between the state and the population when the latter are demonised as anarchists, un-patriotic trouble-makers, foreign agents, etc as soon as they show the slightest signs of protest.
So what gives? Prime Minister Badawi had appealed to the Malaysian public to give him time, feedback and support. The demonstration of frustration and the demand for reform happen to be precisely the sort of feedback he needs at the moment, one could argue. Yet Badawi’s reaction on the eve of the Bersih demonstration was to threaten the demonstrators with arrest and to state bluntly that he will not be challenged. Is this the real face of the benevolent administration that came to the power on the promise that the leader would listen to the Malaysian public, and which asked Malaysians to ‘work with me, and not for me’?
The developing world is facing numerous structural, institutional and social-normative challenges at the moment. Yet the pace of globalisation will not falter nor rest, and it is imperative that developing countries and their governments adapt to the realities of our times, living as we do in a globalised world where the images of riot police shooting and beating demonstrators – as recently happened in Burma – will be on the internet in minutes, if not seconds. Yet developing countries like Burma and Malaysia, as well as Zimbabwe and many others, continue to labour under regimes that have not only lost touch but have been left so far behind. Yet another thuggist James Bond villian for a leader the developing world does not need. And that’s what the people are saying in the streets while they are being gassed by their benevolent, smiling leaders.