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Dec 12, 2007

Normalising Demonstrations

By Farish A Noor

Malaysians pride themselves for the wrong reasons sometimes. We boast to the world that ours is a land of stability and peace, yet this stability that bears the made-in-Malaysia stamp is one that is underpinned by the constant threat of state violence and repression and can only be compared to a pressure cooker perpetually on the boil and ready to explode. Half a century after our so-called independence we have yet to shake off the colonial blinkers and gags that were once used to stiffle the legitimate voices of the nation's forefathers. Half a century on we still live in fear of outdated colonial tools such as the Internal Security Act (ISA).

The recent arrests of a number of politicians and activists who were identified with the opposition in Malaysia demonstrates that this is a country that has still to come to terms with the very simple idea of freedom of speech. Malaysians are told, time and again, in the most paternalistic and patronising manner that insults our intelligence, that we need to be guarded, policed and controlled for our own good. We are fed the standard hogwash and bile that demonstrating is a non-Malaysian trait, and that to demonstrate against the abuses by the powers-that-be is unpatriotic, un Asian and un-Malaysian.

I write this as I prepare to leave Germany and make my return to Asia. My friends and colleagues are understandably worried for they point out that I am on my way to a region in crisis, a state on the verge of faltering.

Yet what moves me the most during my final days in Europe - a place where I have lived for more than half my life - is the fact that many of the things I have done over the past two decades will soon be robbed away from me. For a start, I have attended (on last count) 57 demonstrations over the past twenty-one years. I have marched with anti-Fascists against the neo-Nazis in London, took part in the anti-Poll Tax demonstrations in that same city, joined in the throng of half a million Berliners as we gave a collective two fingers to the bloodthirsty hawks and mass-murderers installed in Washington before they embarked on their war on Iraq.

I am cognisant of the fact that not all the demonstrations were successful. Despite the fact that half a million Berliners took to the streets on the snowy winter day four years ago, the American bombs rained on Baghdad nonetheless. But as a student and member of the student movement and labour movement in Britain, our demonstrations managed to get the neo-Nazis off the streets and out of our neighbourhoods; forced the government of Thatcher to back down on many a destructive economic reform measure, protected our universities from further privatisation and commercialisation. We demonstrated against the racism shown to asylum seekers and refugees, we demonstrated in solidarity with the students of Peking when they were massacred by the army, we demonstrated in support of the activists of Burma, Nepal, Kashmir, and many other localities we had not even seen or visited.

Yet in Malaysia this most fundamental freedom- to speak, to state our opinions, to disagree, to refuse and to resist is denied to us on the spurious notion of national security and integrity. We are denied our fundamental, essential right to be human beings with rational agency and choice and the ability to express that choice.

By whom? By the very same people who decide that they can - if they wish - demonstrate on issues close to their heart and when it suits them by giving them the political standing they need. While ordinary Malaysian citizens are forbidden to walk the streets of their own capital, the ruling elite see fit to demonstrate against the arrival of US secretary Condoleeza Rice, while effigies of that woman hang behind the egos of the macho hotspurs of UMNO. And these same two-faced hypocrites have the gall to demonstrate against the Burmese regime which they argue have stiffled fundamental freedoms in Burma, while they do the same in their own back yard. The mind boggles at the thick-skinned brazen hypocrisy that has come to be the norm of politics in Malaysia.


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