FEB 8 — Anniversaries, for better or worse, count for something. They are a part of the human habit of ritualising and inscribing significant events or experiences into our personal or collective memories. February 6th is no different. On its surface, it is just any other day in the calendar. But due to a series of traumatic and undemocratic turn of events, my home state of Perak was transformed into a pariah state overnight, exactly about a year ago.
I used to be so proud, to be a son of ‘Paloh’, a peaceful, ‘horizontal’ city (due to Ipoh’s lack of high-rise buildings), surrounded by calming, green lime-stone hills and clean air. I used to be proud of the various public institutions, connected to the Kinta Valley’s unique history and culture of public service (remembering the legendary Seenivasagam brothers and how the municipality made Ipoh the cleanest town in the entire country, not to mention, having an ex-Lord President of the Malaysian Judiciary as our Sultan). In spite of Ipoh and Perak’s idyllic and beautiful exterior, morally, my home state is in shambles. The multi-racial social fabric of the state has been torn apart, as evidenced by the latest Merdeka Centre poll, where the races are deeply polarised due to the political imbroglio which has festered for close to a year. It is telling that the Perak constitutional crisis of 2009 did not remain a local issue, in spite of the machinations of the powers-that-be in passing it off, not only as legitimate, but having the cheek to frame the power grab as one where the current Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abd Kadir’s administration is abiding by the legal process, and that what matters to him and his cohorts, is that they are serving the people of Perak well with an agenda of development and order.
What is missing in this great meta-narrative of ‘peace and development’ lauded by Datuk Seri Zambry and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak (as the gargantuan billboards depicting the smiling faces of our two leaders welcoming every resident or visitor to the city of Ipoh, symbolises)? For a start, buried underneath this grand narrative spun by the Barisan Nasional state government, lie countless stories of lives affected and transformed by the power grab of February 6th 2009. Mine is just a small paragraph in the dramatic chapters of ordinary, law-abiding Perakians, moved into action by historical events bigger than ourselves.
I remember, a year ago, I was still working for an international organisation based in Kuala Lumpur, when I heard about the impending collapse of the state government, led by Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin. On the day the then Menteri Besar was sacked by the Sultan of Perak, I rushed back to Ipoh after work, with a colleague of mine. We drove directly to the Menteri Besar’s Official Residence and were a part of thousands of Perakians showing support and solidarity with Datuk Seri Nizar. We couldn’t quite understand why his request for the dissolution of the State Assembly was denied or that there was no vote-of-confidence taken as a matter of proper procedure in installing a new state government, if indeed the Barisan Nasional has the majority.
That night I saw a spontaneous reaction of the Perak public, Malays, Chinese and Indians, from all walks of life, coming together, coalescing as a symbolic expression of the people’s sovereignty, in the best sense of the term. For ordinary people like us, all we wanted was justice and our democratic rights respected by the powers-that-be. I felt robbed of the vote that we, the majority of all Perakians, had cast on March 8th 2008. The state government that I elected was now destroyed through a series of events that involved possible corruption and the workings of undemocratic forces.
I was distraught, and angry. I suppose, on hindsight, there may be a silver lining or two, for those who have eyes to see. But at that time, to be honest, I could not believe such a shameful and people-disrespecting act could happen in my beloved state of Perak. In short, I became depressed, and this depression would become progressively worse as democracy in Perak suffered further blows, democracy’s face pummeled to a pulp, such as the illegal obstruction of State Assemblypersons from carrying out their lawful duties on March 3rd, forcing them to hold their sitting under the infamous Tree of Democracy. A few months later, events reached its nadir on May 7th, when the Honourable Speaker of the Perak State Assembly was physically man-handled, assaulted and dragged along the floor by a group of un-identified personnel. Outside the Perak SUK, countless arrests of ordinary people, mostly clad in black, by the police, turned the city of Ipoh into a siege-like battleground.
What on earth is happening to my beloved hometown? Why has law-enforcement degenerated into selective propping-up of an undemocratic regime, albeit via a bloodless coup? On a side-note, I remember coming into close contact with a young man, while running away from the wanton arrests by charging policemen. We were rushing up the stairs to take refuge in the upper floor of an office lot. I have recognised his face before, even though it was just the temporary sharing of a shelter for a matter of hours. In the days to come, this young man’s fate would be deeply embroiled with the moral fabric and soul of our nation. His name is Teoh Beng Hock. I will always remember that his life story is much bigger than his tragic death at Plaza Masalam. Teoh Beng Hock, though hailing from Melaka, was a Malaysian who cared for democracy’s fate in Perak and was in solidarity with us when it mattered most.
The sorry state of affairs is coming to a head this Tuesday, when the Federal Court decides on the case of the two Menteri Besars. A year on, much has happened in our country, but the mood remains one of gloom. I find myself in conversations with friends, trying to amuse ourselves by making predictions about whether the Federal Court will find the case in favour of Datuk Seri Zambry (a Nizar victory unimaginable in our amateur minds) or not, taking ‘bets’ (rest assured, no money is involved here) on the judicial score being 5-0, 4-1 or 3-2, akin to football score punditry. It is a sad reflection of the level of confidence we have in our judiciary when the public thinks that the result is a foregone conclusion. Good, sound, independent judicial decisions should be the ordinary expectation of all Malaysians, but we are made to beg and pray for them when crucial constitutional matters are adjudicated, the present case notwithstanding. So, what are some of the hard lessons we can take from the Perak constitutional crisis, in the midst of the doom and gloom? I would like to offer three such examples.
1) The inherent fragility of legal constitutions and the unmasking of political war and violence – We all know that for any constitutional arrangement to work at all, this assumes an a priori commitment from all parties to abide by procedural fairness and the reaching of consensus based on democratic deliberation. What has happened in Perak exposed a fundamental reality behind all the legal wrangling and abstract hypocritical references to notions of ‘the rule of law’, ‘separation of powers’, ‘due process’ and what not. That reality is power, the kind of political power that trumps rights and procedural fairness, in spite of all pretensions to abide by the ‘legal process’.
Might has indeed become right in my home state of Perak. It is no wonder that the controversial Nazi Germany law professor, Carl Schmitt, has argued that where power and politics of state is concerned, the notion of ‘the friend’ and ‘the enemy’ is fundamental. One group sees the other as fundamentally a threat to its own interests and survival, and this necessitates an all-out war to vanquish and destroy the other (please read here, Umno-BN vs Pakatan Rakyat). There is no room for negotiation, compromise or consensus, which all liberal-democratic systems aspire to.
What is particularly illuminating in the Perak constitutional crisis is that this dimension of hidden warfare is now unmasked for all Malaysians to see. Can one deny the brutal exhibition of power and violence when one sees the helpless figure of the legally elected Speaker Sivakumar being graphically tossed out from the august assembly by unidentified individuals who have not been charged till this day? As far as they’re concerned, Sivakumar is ‘the enemy’ and must be eliminated. (I am not making any assertions that only Umno-BN functions in this way, as Pakatan Rakyat is capable of the same, if left uncriticised). On hindsight, one should not be surprised when political scientist, Wong Chin Huat, argued that the death of Teoh Beng Hock constitutes the very first political death in our recent history. Perak and his death are both manifestations of the triumph of brute power over laws and constitutions.
2) The desperate need for ‘Empathy’ in our public culture – In spite of the full blown antagonistic nature of the political realm, which is exposed for all to see in Perak, Schmitt’s argument does not have to be inevitable in Malaysia. We are not and cannot become another Third Reich. We have to begin from a common human condition that accepts and acknowledges our differences, be it racial, religious or political. What we so desperately need in this defining moment of our common history, is for all citizens, and that includes our leaders and politicians, to start exercising one of our God-given abilities, the power of empathy.
We are all suffering from an empathy deficit, the inability or a moral refusal to try to see things from the other person’s perspective, to be in his or her shoes, so to speak. What do I have in common with my Muslim friends? What are the fears of my Christian friends? What does real economic opportunity look like for the Malay, the Indian, the Dayak, the Iban, the Chinese, and all those systematically excluded from the democratic process? This is the moral dimension that is not captured by fiscal and economic deficits, and we are all the more impoverished by it. The recent poll shows that nearly three in four of all Perakians want to elect a state government of their free choice and consent. Can and will their aspirations be addressed and looked into, no matter what the court decides on Tuesday?
3) The liberating power of Iconic Symbols for Democracy – The final lesson, or silver lining, I could see or learn from this debacle is that the Perak crisis gave birth to two powerful symbols of democracy. The Tree and the Speaker. One must never underestimate the liberating power of symbols and icons in mobilising and unleashing forces of democratisation around the world. We all remember the Tank Man, who on that bloody day of June 4th 1989, caused the entire world to hush in silence, where for 5 minutes, it felt like time had stood eternally still, when he, armed with just a shopping bag, out of defiance of the unstoppable, crushing military might of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, stood his ground and immobilised an entire line of armoured tanks trying to enter the city of Beijing, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre.
And so in Perak, the year is 2009. The images of the Tree of Democracy, and then the Speaker, Sivakumar, being dragged out, humiliated by an arbitrary display of violence by unaccountable police power. He is our very own Tank Man, reminiscent of that lone, solitary individual, who withstood the might of the Chinese regime. Just as how it was etched in the collective psyche of all freedom and democracy-loving citizens of the world, the physical overpowering of Sivakumar must never be forgotten in the annals of a People’s History of Malaysia, to be written by ordinary Malaysian citizens. These events help form the narrative of the historic struggle between the ‘have-nots’ against the injustices and oppression of the ‘haves’ in maintaining the status quo of elite interests and crony-capitalism.
After all is said and done, after all the emotional roller-coaster that the Perak crisis has put her citizens through, am I still proud of being a Perakian, a son of Ipoh? Perhaps our lives, as with all human history, is necessarily mired in ambiguities and tensions. “You can love your country and be angry at its actions”, a dictum epitomised by the life mission of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. If this is the truest and wisest expression of wisdom for patriotism, then I’m angry at all that has happened…and yet I dearly love and am proud of my hometown and state.
A year has indeed past. Amidst all the setbacks and the sadness, a sliver of hope remains. I guess, nobody said that democratic change is easy. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, does not come on a silver platter. We in Perak have to learn it the hard way. But our hope and dream for a People’s Government in Perak shall never die, regardless of Tuesday’s Federal Court judgment.
*The Author hails from Ipoh and he is a reader of the Malaysian Insider. He is the Parliamentary Affairs and Research Officer for the Democratic Action Party of Malaysia. These are his personal reflections of the Perak crisis as an ordinary citizen and do not represent the views of his party.
Death of democracy in Perak — Boon Kia Meng