Malaysia:  Its hard to listen to the people while you gas them in the face

Farish A. Noor

Posted Dec 12, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Its hard to listen to the people while you gas them in the face

By Farish A. Noor

Once in a blue moon, in the developing world there appears that rare sort of
politician who claims that he wants to listen to the people and take them
into account. Of course the sighting of these rare characters is greeted
with some degree of elation and relief, a bit like witnessing a lunar
eclipse or winning a small lottery: For the developing world is replete with
arm-wielding, thug-hugging, testosterone-driven macho-types who often preach
their gospel of governance with a club in one hand and the other poised on
the trigger.

We have seen this sort of nasty governance in many a developing country: The
riot police in South Korea used to have a smiley face on their riot shields,
just to add insult to injury when they shot off their tear gas cannisters at
point blank range. Indonesian security forces during the time of Suharto
used to chat pleasantly with the locals over a cup of tea before they sent
in bulldozers to flatten entire villages. Why, even the death squads of
Saddam Hussein used to send a bill and invoice to the families of those
whose members had been kidnapped and murdered at night.

But there is also that other type of soft authoritarian despot that many of
us in the developing world are familiar with by now: These are the more
media-savvy types who can at least tie a tie around their necks, feel
comfortable in a suit, quote from a novel offhand, and smile at you. Then
they do things like place their citizens under detention without trial, have
them arrested at dawn while they are asleep in their homes, manipulate the
media and control every branch of the government from the legislature to the

Looking at the developments in Malaysia of late, one might come to the
conclusion that that is precisely the sort of soft authoritarianism that has
come to roost. Over the past month the capital of Kuala Lumpur witnessed at
least two mammoth demonstrations in a country where the national pastime
seems to be shopping: The first was a march organised by the coalition of
NGOs called ‘BERSIH’, that called for free and fair elections. The second
was a large march organised by the Malaysian Hindu Action Rights Force
(HINDRAF) that highlighted the plight of the millions of Malaysian Hindus
who remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in the country.

As expected, the Malaysian government’s reaction was to demonise the
demonstrators, block the roads, call in the riot police and have the
demonstrators arrested, chased and tear-gassed in the streets of the
capital. Images of Malaysian citizens being doused by water sprays and
gassed appeared instantaneously across the world courtesy of and
other internet sites, and the happy fiction of Malaysia being the land of
peace and plenty sank accordingly…

But what is most worrisome is the epistemic and cognitive dissonance between
the actions of the state and its rhetoric. The administration of Prime
Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came to power on a huge mandate and riding on
the promise that it would not only clean up the Malaysian political system
but also initiate a series of reforms and listen to the people.

Now the last point is terribly important for many Malaysians have always
felt that their opinions were of little worth in the eyes of the
powers-that-be. The previous administration of Dr Mahathir Mohamad did
little to cast any suspicions that it was remotely democratic, and Dr
Mahathir even went as far as proclaim his own deep misgivings of democracy
and reform. Badawi, on the other hand, tapped into the frustrations of the
Malaysians and promised them an outlet by stating that he would take them
into account and listen to them But what has been the result?

It could be argued that the two massive demonstrations witnessed in the
streets of Kuala Lumpur were precisely instances of public communication.
One doesn’t have to be a scholar of semantics or semiotics to see that
expressions of public distrust and anger in the public domain is a case of
public communication at its most explicit. These were instances of
Malaysians saying to the government and to Badawi in particular: “You
promised us reforms, but you have not delivered. Now we are excercising our
fundamental right to complain.”

But the complaints of the Malaysians were stiffled and silenced by the
police sirens and the popping of tear gas cannisters in the streets. Its
difficult for any leader to listen to the people when he is gassing them at
the same time. Its equally difficult for there to be any meaningful dialogue
between the state and the population when the latter are demonised as
anarchists, un-patriotic trouble-makers, foreign agents, etc as soon as they
show the slightest signs of protest.

So what gives? Prime Minister Badawi had appealed to the Malaysian public to
give him time, feedback and support. The demonstration of frustration and
the demand for reform happen to be precisely the sort of feedback he needs
at the moment, one could argue. Yet Badawi’s reaction on the eve of the
Bersih demonstration was to threaten the demonstrators with arrest and to
state bluntly that he will not be challenged. Is this the real face of the
benevolent administration that came to the power on the promise that the
leader would listen to the Malaysian public, and which asked Malaysians to
‘work with me, and not for me’?

The developing world is facing numerous structural, institutional and
social-normative challenges at the moment. Yet the pace of globalisation
will not falter nor rest, and it is imperative that developing countries and
their governments adapt to the realities of our times, living as we do in a
globalised world where the images of riot police shooting and beating
demonstrators – as recently happened in Burma – will be on the internet in
minutes, if not seconds. Yet developing countries like Burma and Malaysia,
as well as Zimbabwe and many others, continue to labour under regimes that
have not only lost touch but have been left so far behind. Yet another
thuggist James Bond villian for a leader the developing world does not need.
And that’s what the people are saying in the streets while they are being
gassed by their benevolent, smiling leaders.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at
the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the research site.