Chapter 10: Freedom, Justice, and the Law
Personal Liberty in Malaysia –
Chilling Effects of Repressive Laws like ISA
An editor of a Malaysian professional publication invited me to be its regular contributor. I readily agreed, and aware of the local psyche and ambience, purposely submitted a rather bland first piece. He readily published it but chided me for being too cautious as Malaysia “has changed” since I left the country. Encouraged, my next piece was more critical, and sure enough, his earlier encouragement notwithstanding, he sheepishly told me that his board had vetoed my submission! Thus ended my brief career as a columnist for that outfit! I later submitted the same piece to a mainstream paper (owned by the ruling party) and much to my surprise, it was published unchanged. I later sent the editor of the first publication the published copy; he felt rather small. The truth was, the mainstream paper had a new editor and I decided to test his professionalism and independence.
In another episode I submitted sample chapters of my first book (choosing carefully the least critical ones) to an establishment Malaysian publisher. He was enthralled and added that he had published a number of books by members of the ruling elite and that he looked forward to publishing mine as it would be a pleasant departure from the usual staple. But when I submitted my entire manuscript which contains chapters much more critical, he demurred. Receiving publishers’ rejection letters is not a novel phenomenon with me, but what startled me was his apologia. He complimented me ad nauseam, for being “brave” and “forthright,” but he was afraid of the backlash as he did considerable amount of business with the government. I also approached other Malaysian publishers and printers, but the refrain was always the same. They had too much business with the government and its myriad companies to risk publishing my book. It would have been better if they had simply told me that my book was not up to their standard. Or perhaps that was their soft Asian way to “save face” and spare me any embarrassment! My book was finally published in America and again, thanks to the Internet and globalization, my publisher had no difficulty marketing it not only in Malaysia but also worldwide. Had I used a Malaysian publisher, my book would not have had global exposure.
I relate these incidents to illustrate the chilling effects of these intrusive rules and restrictive regulations. People exercise self-censorship and excessive caution for fear of official reprisal. Instead of expanding the envelope they stick to the tried-and-true. But progress depends on citizens daring to explore the edges and beyond.
These restrictive laws also foster the kind of behavior that is crudely referred to as “sucking up.” This is an absolute anathema to progress. Subordinates and citizens would then choose a decision or path of action that they think would please those in power. The results can be disastrous as exemplified by the following recent examples.
It is an open secret that Malays are preferentially admitted to local universities while non-Malays with comparable or even far superior grades are routinely rejected. None deny this racist practice and indeed many in the senior levels of the establishment go to great length and contorted logic to justify what is clearly an unacceptable practice. But because there was no public outcry and more significantly, lack of open denunciation by the leaders, the practice persisted and indeed spread.
In late 2001 it was revealed that such obnoxious practices are also being done at the primary school level. That is, students are academically streamed based on their race even at such a tender age. When it was first revealed, the education minister denied, but later in the face of more evidence, he admitted it occurred but was an isolated incident and thus not worthy of his attention. But when the teachers’ union exposed that it was indeed a rampant practice, the minister went through great hoops to justify it! Taking their cue from the minister, bureaucrats began repeating the same mantra – “in the national interest” – to justify their actions. Only when the prime minister and his deputy condemned the practice did everyone realize how institutionalized racism is in the education ministry specifically, and the government generally. This sordid affair occurred because those underlings thought they were doing what their leaders wanted them to do. “Sucking up to the powerful” wrapped as the “national policy.”
To be fair, the minister did finally convene a committee of outside educators to examine the allegations. Chaired by a retired academic, the committee refuted the charges, claiming that there was no intent to discriminate. A further controversy ensued following the release of that report, as the committee made public only an executive summary, not its methodology and full findings.
That primary school debacle came in the heels of another major scandal, this one at the other polar end of the education spectrum involving the Certificate for Law Practice (CLP) examination. The CLP is required of all law graduates of private colleges; those from public law schools are exempted. To appreciate the unfolding drama, one has to understand the political background. Public law faculties in Malaysia, “in the national interest” are the near exclusive preserve of Bumiputras, while the private ones cater to non-Bumiputras. One does not have to be particularly astute to sense the poisonous race potential of the CLP mess.
It started out rather routinely: the tests’ questions were leaked. The results of the investigations were also routinely Malaysian: some minor clerks were arrested. But from there things unraveled very quickly. It turned out that such leaks had been going on for years! But the greatest bombshell was that the released scores were not the same as what the candidates had earned from their examiners.
The scores had been tampered, and that this too had been standard practice for years. This brought forth an outpouring of outrage from many, including Law Minister Rais Yatim. The upshot was that the director was suspended. No further details were forthcoming; the man chose to keep quiet.
In the flurry of letters to Malaysiakini (the mainstream media saw fit not to cover the issue extensively), it was revealed that the director was a former associate dean of MARA law school (a public and exclusively Malay institution) and he was chosen at a time when those MARA law students had to sit for the CLP. And they were not doing too well; thus the insidious practice probably began then. Today those MARA students do not need to sit for the CLP, but old habits die hard. When the truth finally emerges I am sure that the misguided soul thought that what he was doing, tampering with the CLP, was also “in the national interest.” To imagine that hundreds of Malay would-be lawyers at MARA were under his tutelage boggles the imagination!
Malaysia’s many restrictive laws have another more corrosive effect on society. They discourage healthy public debates on important issues. Indeed certain topics are deemed “sensitive” and beyond the pale of discussion. The leaders have decided, in their wisdom, no further new inquiry or insights are needed on such important issues. They are deemed settled. No more discussion!
This mindset reminds me of the mentality of Muslim scholars and leaders of the 10th Century when they decided that everything were deemed settled in Islam and that no new inquiries were needed. Today, Malaysians too have their own secular or political “closure of the gate of Ijtihad (rational discourse).” The effect on the nation of this stricture will be equally destructive.
The issues deemed sensitive include among others, the Malay language, special privileges, and the status of the sultans. With time the list will surely expand. Anyone breaching such prohibitions is subject to the dreaded ISA or the equally feared Sedition Act. Many scholars, politicians, and writers have met this fate. Even more startling, such gross violations of the basic rights of the citizens evoke minimal or no outrage from the general public.
Malaysian leaders view public discourses as dangerous. The ghost of the 1969 savage race riot still haunts them. They still view Malaysians a generation later as being dumb and easily swayed by emotional and chauvinistic exhortations of opportunistic politicians. Unfortunately today many Malaysians, especially Malays, still demonstrate this juvenile tendency. The 1998 ugly demonstrations over the firing of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim merely confirmed the worse suspicion of leaders like Mahathir that Malaysians cannot act rationally or discuss their differences in a civil manner.
This leads to a “Catch 22” situation. Unless Malaysians are trained or encouraged to have healthy public discussions, they will never learn to tolerate dissenting opinions and have civil disagreements. Learning to disagree agreeably is an art, and Malaysians must be trained and prepared for this difficult skill.
Foreign visitors to America are always impressed with and surprised at how civil American political leaders are toward each other. In the Senate, a flaming left wing liberal like Edward Kennedy could cosponsor legislative bills with an archconservative right wing Orrin Hatch. The two may view the world very differently; nonetheless they can still work together for the good of the nation. Indeed the two actually admire and hold each other in high personal regard. While they may profoundly disagree with each other politically, their private and public exchanges have always been civil and decorous. No resorting to name calling.
The Republican and very conservative President Reagan used to invite Tip O’Neill, the very liberal Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, to the White House especially after some particularly contentious congressional debates for an evening of drinks and cigar smoking. Such amiable personal gestures go a long way. More significantly, such very public displays of civility are not lost on the general populace. This of course has not always been the case in America. There was time when there had been actual open brawls and gun duels in Congress.
Malaysia during Tunku’s time was remarkable for the personal amiability and personal rapport among its various leaders. The Tunku made it a habit after the opening of parliament for example, of having a social get together at his residence for all members of parliament so they could get to know each other socially and outside the usual context of party politics. The aristocratic and worldly Tunku had very warm personal relationships with the socialist Tan Chee Koon as well as the leaders of PAS. It is to be noted that while Tunku was in his personal behaviors less than a pious Muslim (he admitted as much in his personal writings), nonetheless none of PAS leaders ever called him a kafir. Today PAS leaders callously labeled Mahathir as “Mahafiraun” (evil Pharaoh) and other epithets. PAS followers of course take their cue from their leaders. Mahathir too is equal to the task in return, calling PAS leaders and followers simpletons and backward.
As the result of this coarsening of public discourse, Malaysians have difficulty tolerating differences of opinions among themselves. This is particularly true among Malays. Malays cannot seem to disagree with each other either in political or religious views without imputing ugly motives. This state of affairs will continue as long as Malaysians are denied the opportunities to express their disagreements in the appropriate channels without fear. This trend, uncorrected, will only lead to further polarization and division.
Perversely, the nation’s leaders implicitly encourage this. They would prefer that the citizens be docile and passive followers and leave the decision making to the leaders. The assumption is that they and only they have the exclusive wisdom as to what is good for the country. This is definitely not a recipe for progress.
It is a tribute to the bravery and ingenuity of Malaysians that despite such intrusive and highly restrictive rules, they still manage to express themselves and circumvent those barriers. The government and the ruling party may control the mainstream media, so committed citizens created their own news outlets. When the government denied Harakah, the daily publication of PAS, from expanding because it was attracting an increasing number of readers, its publishers turned to the Internet.
Similarly, Steven Gans together with other committed and independent-minded journalists, fed up with the self-censorship of their editors at the traditional papers, started the Internet daily, Malaysiakini.com to provide an alternative to the government-controlled media. It is a reflection of the hunger Malaysians have for reliable and trustworthy news that within a year, Malaysiakini was getting more daily hits than the established papers. Malaysiakini’s success is also an indicator of the citizens’ distrust of the mainstream media. Indeed newspapers controlled by the ruling parties saw their circulation substantially reduced. In addition to providing an independent source of news, Malaysiakini is also performing a vital public service by providing an avenue for such refreshing new writers as Amir Muhammad and Hishamuddin Rais. Amir was a regular contributor to the establishment newspapers, until his editors mangled his essays beyond recognition.
Another brave soul deserving much praise is the political writer Syed Hussein Alattas, or Pak Habib, as his myriad readers and fans know him. When established publishers would not touch his books, he started his own publishing company. He has, in his words, “written more books than the average Malaysian professor has ever read!” His power and influence is such that former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam blamed (credited?) him for his (Musa’s) fall from power. When Pak Habib writes, observes Asiaweek’s Roger Mitton, Malaysian politicians tremble.
I cannot help imagining how many more writers and talents out there that are being suppressed by Malaysia’s many oppressive rules. The flowering of arts and literature in the West is precisely because of the freedom their citizens enjoy. Malaysia will never see a similar renaissance if its citizens are kept on a very tight leash.
Next: The Judiciary: Justice in Jeopardy