A matter of dignity
Everyone has his or her idea of what a perfect world is. Some might say that society should be less regulated and more space given for personal freedoms. Others might argue in favour of more regulation and control. Some might expound a more racialist perspective while others may be happy with just a modicum of fairness.
Whatever the case, the realities of a societal existence compel us to find middle ground, a state of being where one has as much freedom to be human and to do all things vital to dignified existence as such while respecting the next person’s right to do the same. This calls for compromise on the part of everyone who chooses to co-exist in a given society. This compromise necessitates relinquishing the right to ‘self-help’ to those tasked with administering that society.
In Malaysia, that compact is entrenched as an essential feature of Malaysian existence by Constitutional guarantees of fundamental liberties.
Though the administering of a society would necessarily involve some measure of regulation, the power of the state to regulate is not an absolute one. Its responsibility to do so is to be balanced against its responsibility to protect those freedoms that define that society. Any intervention by the state, and the character of such intervention, is to be determined by reference to both these considerations.
There is however an unfortunate tendency on the part of our government to focus only on the need to protect public order. This often obscures the equally important responsibility of the government to protect the dignity of its citizens. The question that is more often than not overlooked is what is it that gives us dignity.
The right to express, either as individuals or as a collective, is a crucial element in what it is that defines us as who we are. In most cases, the power to express ourselves is really all that those of us without access to the corridors of power have. Individuals may be stripped of their belongings and status, they may be constrained in a number of ways, but they do not stop being human as long as they have the ability to express who it is that they are to the world around them. The HINDRAF rally of 2007 illustrates that point clearly.
For some, the need to express may be satisfied by their choice of the colour or design of their car, or outfit. For others, the need may be greater. They may wish to say that they are not happy with the state of government or that they are frustrated at the lack of response from agencies charged with administering elections. As much as some may disagree with their view, it is not for anyone to say that they have no right to think or feel what it is they are feeling.
In the case of those seeking reform, their right to speak up is reinforced by the fact that Malaysia is a democracy. We elect our governments. For them to have the continued confidence of the rakyat, the integrity of the process by which they have been elected must be seen as being unimpeachable.
That does not appear to be case though. Going by what BERSIH 2.0 is saying, a significant number of Malaysians believe that the process cannot be seen as being unimpeachable. This is not just about whether there is electoral corruption or whether there has been ballot stuffing, it goes deeper into the question of whether the system of elections as it is allows us to achieve the aim underlying general elections. Issues have been raised about re-delineation exercises, campaign periods, equal access to mainstream media by all political parties, amongst others. These are undoubtedly significant features of the process that all Malaysians ought be concerned with.
BERSIH says that it has attempted to raise these matters with the relevant agencies but thus far its efforts have not got it anywhere and no resolution has been achieved. For this reason, BERSIH says it needs to express itself as a last resort through a rally. Judging by the studied silence or avoidance of those charged with responsibility over elections, it appears to be all that BERSIH, and Malaysians who support its cause, can do.
In any modern nation state describing itself as one established on the Rule of Law, there would be no difficulty. BERSIH organizers would be told that they would have to march along a particular route, with a sufficient number of wardens at a particular time. The police would go to great lengths to ensure that those marching in the rally would be safe and would be able to go about their business uninterrupted.
And if there were a group of individuals opposed to the BERSIH rally, and wished to march in protest, then the police would direct them to march along a different route.
Our government however opposes it and says that the need to preserve public order is more a priority than allowing Malaysians to express themselves on the subject. With impunity PERKASA puts a spin on the matter and asserts that its supporters are happy with the way things are and will endeavour to thwart the BERSIH rally with a counter-rally.
The police are weighing in as well, giving notice of preemptive arrests in the face of no permit having been issued for the proposed rally. The posturing makes it clear that no permit would be issued in any event.
In conducting themselves as they do, the government and the police have sent a strong signal to Malaysians that they do not consider the right to express themselves on the subject as being of any importance. In doing so, they have effectively told Malaysians who support the cause that their dignity is of no relevance. That they should just stomach the system as it is.Is there really any cause for wonder at the fact that Malaysians increasingly seem more inclined to take to the streets?
(An edited version of this article appears in my 'Rule of Law' column in The Edge this week)