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 judiciary.

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, unpatriotic 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.

  1. #1 by azk on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 11:50 am

    Rakyat to Badawi, “Work for me, not rob me.”

  2. #2 by pengembaraglobalisasi on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 11:56 am

    Rakyat dah bosan dengan budaya politik UMNO . Cakap tak sama bikin. Bukan politik kotor , tapi budaya politiknya dah jadi SHIT .

  3. #3 by OCSunny on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 12:29 pm

    Excellent piece of article.

  4. #4 by Libra2 on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 1:12 pm

    During the last elections many of my gullible friends voted for BN, based on all the empty promises of the UMNO president.
    No, I never trusted him and voted DAP.
    I never liked his voice, his face, his eagle nose, his body language. I saw him as a sheep in wolves clothing, as a chameleon, and a crude and crooked leader, never to be trusted.
    I saw him as a colourless politician, lacking in intelligence and wisdom.
    I told my friends that he was fooling the people. The nice-guy image was a facade and nothing else. Deep within he was EVIL.
    Now I am vindicated. He is the worst PM we have ever had.

  5. #5 by k1980 on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 1:24 pm

    Who knows what happened in the malay peninsula before Parameswara converted to Islam?
    The only index on which ethnic Indians lead is suicides. The crime rate of the group is also shockingly high. The Tamil schools are largely dysfunctional. “The conduct of the Malaysian authorities has been particularly offensive,” says India’s former external affairs minister, Yeshwant Sinha. “Even the country’s official history starts with the 14th century after the last Hindu king converted to Islam. They want to obliterate their past.”

  6. #6 by Godfather on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 1:38 pm

    Big Ears need to gas people in the face otherwise he will get ear-ache.

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 2:02 pm

    You want to know what a hypocrite Badawi is? Recent examples

    1) Cabinet is 70% malay not half.
    2) I have big ears? But don’t want to meet Hindraf or sent anyone to talk to them.
    3) Public safety over freedom? When the police act first?
    4) RM103billion in market cap improvement of GLC. He forget to mention that at least RM30billion is from new Sime Darby that is result of 50% improvement in palm oil prices.

    I recommend to Saturday Night Live to have Badawi host a show with his speeches. He is really funny in that SNL ridiculous sort of way..

  8. #8 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 2:28 pm

    Pak Lah is wrong again! So Burmese defame their countries abroad over military rule; Sudanese defame their countries abroad over Darfur; and so on. Reasons: there is an oppressive and unfair regime at home! Simple-LAH – they love their nations too. If they tak kasih sayang, they tak buka mulut.

    “They Don’t Love The Nation, Says Abdullah”
    PETALING JAYA, Dec 13 (Bernama) — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Thursday that those who defame the country overseas are people who do not love their country.

  9. #9 by smeagroo on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 3:03 pm

    it is ok to be gassed once in a while but not by the very air that emits from his bottom.

  10. #10 by Libra2 on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 3:31 pm

    This PM does not know the difference between the country and the government.
    One can love the country and yet hate the government and the PM.

  11. #11 by boh-liao on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 3:50 pm

    Why is our crime rate on the rise? Where are all the mata-mata? Not enough mata-mata to prevent serious crimes in the country?

    Truth: mata-mata busy catching non-violent nationalists.
    How many mata-mata to bully a non-violent nationalist?

    An act of our self-proclaimed peace loving PM.

  12. #12 by Godfather on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 4:00 pm

    Big Ears has now put the HINDRAF leaders under ISA. Excellent. This is exactly what the minorities in Bolehland need – global exposure to the corrupt regime that we live under.

  13. #13 by Libra2 on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 4:11 pm

  14. #14 by Godfather on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 4:17 pm

    Now you know why the den of thieves will never repeal the ISA. When they can’t charge you with anything that can stick, they just put you under the ISA. Simple.

  15. #15 by Jimm on Thursday, 13 December 2007 - 5:31 pm

    Rakyat are more aware of ISA and not afraid to talk about it openly nowadays.
    Rakyat will know what kind of government system we have been put into all these years.
    Rakyat will bear this cut and will self heal from this same wound onr day.
    Rakyat will wake up as the government had just woke up the GIANTS..

  16. #16 by DarkHorse on Friday, 14 December 2007 - 12:43 am

    What gas are you talking about??

  17. #17 by negarawan on Friday, 14 December 2007 - 10:55 pm

    We appeal to the UN to declare a resolution against the UMNO-led government of Malaysia for the illegal and undemocratic detention under ISA. There is no difference between what UMNO is doing and the junta of Myanmar and apartheid South Africa. We implore world leaders like Nelson Mandela to speak out against these detentions in Malaysia. We ask the leading nations of the world to impose traveling sanctions against UMNO leaders and also to freeze all their overseas assets. International pressure must be placed on UMNO to stop all their undemocratic, inhumane, corrupt, unjust actions and practices.

  18. #18 by limkamput on Saturday, 15 December 2007 - 3:16 am

    ALL INDIAN MALAYSIANS TAKE NOTE: THIS IS WHAT Diaperhead SAID ABOUT YOU ALL “The Indians have always been opportunistic”.

  19. #19 by ktteokt on Saturday, 15 December 2007 - 9:04 am

    Not BIG EARS, but BIG MOUTH now! Blarring nonsense everyday!!!

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