Political Uncertainty, Credibility Crisis and the Malaysian Dilemma

Dr David KL Quek


"Every country has the duty to safeguard its peace and internal security. But it must in some sense merit that peace by ensuring the welfare of all and respect for their rights. Where justice is lacking, society is threatened from within. This does not mean that the changes required should be realized through violence, for violence merely paves the way for a violent society, to which, we cannot subscribe. What it does mean is that there are social changes, sometimes very profound ones, that must be brought about ... by peaceful reforms." Pope John Paul II

The past month or so has witnessed an unprecedented barrage of events, which have left many Malaysians, numbed and bewildered. Never before has there been so many provocative happenings, that has stirred the imaginations or the talking points of so many Malaysians, from taxi drivers, office workers, kampung folks, to students, academics and professionals from every walk of life.

As medical practitioners, we have not been spared the conflicting tensions, which have divided our ranks. Pro- and anti-establishment opinions have emerged, one favoring stability and the status quo, and the other defending righteousness, openness and justice.

Despite the political underpinnings inherent in these intriguing debates and discussions, the looming threat that "politics be best left to politicians" is clearly considered inappropriate. These issues, which have developed from day to day, have proven far too important and significant for every man in the street to ignore or to remain silent.

Thus every peace-loving but fair-minded citizen should become interested, and perhaps make a stand, although not necessarily publicly, but at least to appease one's own conscience and sanity of mind. Every Malaysian must necessarily be interested in our own political development, because politics ultimately affect everyone of us.

More importantly perhaps, is the growing perception that good governance of any nation should be open to fair criticism or appraisal from its own citizens. Elected leaders can no longer expect their every action or conduct to be embraced as absolute truths or without faults. Human mistakes or unforeseen errors of judgment will inevitably occur. As such, it is appropriate and a sign of enlightened leadership to accept that these should be pointed out by concerned citizens. A paternalistic and authoritarian approach is no longer acceptable or apropos with the times.

One important sign of our rakyat's burgeoning maturity and malaise is the increasingly powerful feeling that loyalty to our country and sovereignty does not equate with blind loyalty or allegiance to political leaders.

If anything, more and more people are beginning to question the actions and excesses of some of our elected leaders. They can no longer count on unquestioning loyalty or trust from the ordinary people, as their right, if they the elected representatives, choose to carry out arbitrary and repugnant actions which run counter to the sense of justice or aspirations of the rakyat.

Moreover, there is an expanding belief that our local media have been too blatantly biased, and are fast losing much of their credibility. Repetitious and relentless one-sided propaganda can only harden the public's sense of outrage and incredulity with the press, especially when the sense of fair play is felt to be lost in the growing power play among our political leaders.

It is worthwhile pondering on what Rose Ismail, a newspaper associate editor has to say: "The accusations hurled at some of us have been hurtful. Even my father no longer reads my newspaper because he has chosen to believe what he finds in the Internet." She admitted that some had accused the media of being biased (NST, Oct 22, 1998, page 5).

Something must be grossly amiss when ordinary people no longer feel they can trust the usual mainstream newspapers. Something must be wrong, when even our previously taciturn yet steadfastly supportive neighbours begin to raise their eyebrows and question the sudden about-turn in our much-vaunted and much-respected democratic principles and practices.

Once, these were the envy of many, particularly in the third world. Once, we were the de facto Asian voice of reason and leadership, much respected, and held high in esteem for many. Now we appear to be the butt of international rebuke. We appear to be sliding into a self-defensive outcast mentality. We begin to decry the perceived foreigners' interference and loudly denounce every contrarian opinion from within and without. We appear to be testy, paranoid, and enshrouded under the mushrooming cloud of a siege mentality.

In this age of all-consuming globalization, it is certainly not in Malaysia's interest to hunker down in the trenches, and hope for the economic holocaust to blow over. We must take every prudent step to stay connected and make the necessary structural and socio-economic reforms, to prevent us from being totally sidetracked by the world's rapidly transforming economic and market re-adjustments.

Media editors and journalists must take cognizance of the fact that unless they show greater objectivity and sensitivity, and not play along one-sided, offensively crude but judgmental slants, they will be rendered irrelevant as purveyors of the truth or facts of any nature. Just as we rightly condemn distorted news reporting from the foreign press, can we not expect that our local media resist and desist from such diametrically opposite malpractices?

In this harrowing climate, can the discerning Malaysian be blamed for wanting to seek a different viewpoint? Never before has any one person in Malaysian history been so publicly vilified, and condemned, (perhaps even mentally and physically brutalized?), in such a tawdry trial by sanctioned media, without due process of the law, without giving the accused the equal opportunity of right of reply, or to defend himself.

No one questions the prerogative of any national leader to dismiss any or even all of his ministers, but must the media be party to the vile and quasi-pornographic depictions on the front-pages, to justify support for those purported crimes? Surely, everyone deserves some semblance of respect for the law, to allow natural justice to be carried out, by due process. Even in Malaysia, any accused must be regarded as not guilty until proven otherwise in the court of law.

Are we entering a new political era where we can now summarily accuse, judge and then sentence anyone in the courtroom of the mass media? Are we not edging perilously close to a totalitarian or a police state?

Lopsided news with suppression or censorship of legitimate dissenting views appear to be the new order of the day, particularly conspicuous, after the sudden resignations of the editors of two major newspapers, and the CEO of a TV station. In their places have sprung sycophantic and jaundiced justifications and diatribes, which further strain the press' objectivity and belie their underlying motives.

Taken together, this smacks of a concerted yet preemptive strike by the authorities that be, to stifle or restrict possible voices of dissent. This augurs poorly and alarmingly for constitutional freedom of expression, so jealously guarded by all modern Malaysians.

Thus, we as ordinary citizens and as concerned professionals should be aware that, the shape of our society, now and in the future, would depend upon our acceptance or resistance of the rapidly changing sociopolitical landscape that we have been thrust into.

While all of us eschew social and political unrest and uncertainty, and renounce violence of all sorts, we must not fear change or reform for the better. For sure it is safer and far more comfortable to adhere to the status quo: "better the devil you know than the one you don't".

However, we should also realize that ultimately our children and we would have to inherit whatever legacy the present quandary leaves behind. We might be saddled with an immense but fossilized yoke of outmoded autocracy – one that might be impossible to crack, henceforth. We could be retreating several decades back in time in terms of sociopolitical development, where all our hard-fought civil liberty becomes consumed in the fires of authoritarian might and dictates. Our way of life and freedom to choose, might become the ossified relics of autocratic decrees of potential neo-colonialists and despots.

In discussing revitalization of society, philosopher Dr Alfred North Whitehead, had said that "the art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code, and secondly, in the fearlessness of revision... Those societies, which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay..."

As concerned citizens and as part of the caring profession, we as doctors urge the powers that be to re-examine their individual conscience vis-a-vis their own political agendas and temper these with that of the nation.

We hope that we will not slowly slip into the quicksand of "Might is Right" mindset. We urge the authorities to reconsider their progressively heavy-handed approach in trying to stifle legitimate expressions of dissent, through peaceful but visible means.

While all of us do not wish for mob rule or political unrest which could undermine our peace-loving yet fragile multicultural society, we must explore the reasons why, such spontaneous expressions of dissent as demonstrations, are sprouting up, again and again, in defiance of our usual love for law and order.

Could it be because, there is no other legitimate avenues for popular dissent? When a restless populace becomes frustrated and disenchanted with the establishment, can it not justifiably resort to some other form of protest, where they can make their views be heard or seen? While we do not condone any violence, can we not respect the right of the people to assemble peacefully, despite the inconvenience this might bring about to some of us?

Do we need to constantly harp on the potential dangers of unintentional racial flare-ups, when there is no such ethnic tension to begin with? Should the spectre of remote ethnic unrest forever deter us from fair or rational thinking in supporting a just course, in wanting a more liberal and open society? Or do we subsume to a climate of insidious yet not-too-subtle intimidation and repression? Are we to be forever ruled by circumstances?

We are pained that peaceful and orderly demonstrations have been routed into running street battles with the police, who should be the logical safeguards and not the heavy-handed enforcers of the law. Violent repression of unarmed and otherwise peaceful people cannot be justified, under any circumstances.

Brutality and torture of whatever form exercised in the apprehension of non-resisting law-breakers or those already in custody is never acceptable in today's civil society. The right of anyone in captivity or under detention to be treated humanely, without arbitrary excesses of either physical or mental torture, and to be legally represented, is a treasured universal human right which we should never compromise with.

Similarly, Malaysians who feel strongly that they want to protest or demonstrate must remember that they should never resort to violence - as violence begets more violence. They should consider that it is far more worthwhile and effective to espouse the great philosophy of passive non-violent resistance, as so passionately advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Therefore, we plead with the authorities to temperate their exuberance of law enforcement with a touch of humanity, in trying to tame down a restless yet peaceful if vociferous crowd. They must exercise the greatest restraint when carrying out their difficult tasks of enforcing the law particularly on an unarmed but passionate people, even if they believed them to be misguided.

We hope and pray for a return to sanity and dialogue, so that the painful events that have erupted thus far be made a thing of the past. We urge that justice and reform be allowed to showcase our political maturity in tackling sociopolitical differences.

Malaysians must resist the temptation to allow the looming spectre of absolutist repression or violent social upheaval from changing our social and political landscape, forever.

Oct 98

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