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The long 2008

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Who could have imagined the election results of March 2008! Khoo Boo Teik looks back at a long year and reminds us that we must continually turn to our community of dissent. It is only in this community that we can find the unifying hope for meaningful social and political change.

Most of us are likely to look back upon the year that’s about to pass entirely into memory as a ‘happening year’. Most of the notable happenings were political ones, bearing surprises and changes.

To be honest, it’s difficult to say anything new or useful about those changes; so much has already been said, written and recorded of them.

But against some recent shattering events – an ominous tsunami engulfing the world’s major financial systems, relentless protests toppling the regime in Thailand, and a terrible bloodbath striking Mumbai – it might not be contrived to sift through our notable domestic developments for something inspiring for 2009.

Past and present

Some of the happenings of 2008 were startling for their audacity. Before 8 March, who could have thought that half of the electorate would rise to break the Barisan Nasional’s (BN) ‘two-thirds majority’ stranglehold over Parliament and drive the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to power in five states (and, properly speaking, Kuala Lumpur, too)? Who would have imagined, six months later, that so many people earnestly wanted Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s ‘916’ scheme to come true?

Other changes have left unfinished repercussions. Can UMNO, unhappily led by Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, badly outmanoeuvred by Anwar, and farcically abandoned by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, survive its internal fissures and external pressures? Will BN be wrecked by the storm of bitter recriminations that have beset a coalition demoralized by the electoral results?

Still other changes have created a stark contrast and, at least for the undecided, a difficult choice. Should we treat PR, promising a New Dawn, as ‘the angel we don’t know’? Should we liken BN, or UMNO rather, that won’t budge from a flaw-fraught status quo, to the devil we do know?

The long 2008

No matter how we think about these and related matters, they took place alongside one of the most inspiring changes we’ve witnessed, namely, the expansion and consolidation of a community of dissent during a ‘Long 2008’.

By ‘Long 2008’, I mean a definitive period that may be supposed to have begun at the end of September 2007 although the 12th General Election became its focal point.

On 26 September 2007, 2,000 people, mostly lawyers and NGO activists, joined the Bar Council’s march to the ‘Palace of Justice’ to protest the continuing judicial degradation that was exposed by Lingam-gate.

Two weeks later, on 10 November, about 40,000, mostly Malay, supporters of BERSIH rallied to demand the reform of the electoral system.

Then came 25 November when the Hindu Rights Action Front’s (Hindraf) 30,000-strong demonstration became one of the most astonishing political developments to have taken place since Anwar Ibrahim’s fall in September 1998. (See AM, vol. 27, no. 9, 2007: 2–6.)


Worthless spins

Tracing the Long 2008 back this way, one can see that it’s futile for BN’s spin masters to blame the 8 March result on an Indian desertion of the BN, or a Chinese swing to the opposition, or Malay absenteeism from the ballot box. For that matter, it’s merely self-serving for some UMNO leaders, or Dr Mahathir, to fasten all responsibility on Abdullah alone.

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Indeed, by the time the campaign of the 12th General Election peaked in the first week of March 2008, the PR parties were themselves taken aback by the swell of multiethnic oppositionist sentiment. The PR ceramah were massively attended. Their campaigns were charged with an exuberant urgency as volunteers, bloggers and ‘passive supporters’ contributed time, effort and money.

On 8 March, therefore, it wasn’t just ungrateful Malays, or disgruntled Chinese, or unreasonable Indians who wrecked the BN’s hegemony. It was half the electorate who decided that only meaningful political change could bring a better future.

It was a multiethnic half that channelled the exuberance of the Bar Council, BERSIH and Hindraf into the euphoria that greeted the PR’s triumph.

Rally, vigil and ride

Since then, a community of dissent has steadily grown by day, week and month. Its ideas, concerns and hopes, whether courteously presented, angrily blurted or even boringly repeated, have taken root in the social imagination, crucially disseminated via cyberspace and blogosphere.

In the real world, the community of dissent is made up of the political parties, legally constituted NGOs and ad hoc groupings. They energize the community through different modes of mobilization.

When they choose to show their physical presence at any one point, the dissenters vary in number, of course, depending on issues, events, organizers, and locations.

In July, August and September 2008 respectively, thousands of people were drawn to the PROTES anti-fuel price hike carnival in Kelana Jaya, Anwar’s ceramah during the Permatang Pauh by-election campaign, and the PR’s rally, again in Kelana Jaya, against the Internal Security Act (ISA).

After the regime committed one of its biggest blunders – detaining Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Teresa Kok and Tan Hoon Cheng under the ISA – hundreds of old and young citizens mounted weekly vigils in Kuala Lumpur, George Town and elsewhere to show their solidarity with the trio.

Fewer, naturally, but naturally more energetic, ‘cyclists’ organised a tour, a nationwide jerit (yell) against the ISA. The police, helpless against the Mat Rempit, harassed JERIT’s small band of cyclists as if they were a new menace. But with the generous support of well-wishers, the cyclists maintained their inventive protest against the persisting practice of detaining without trial dissidents of many persuasions.


An end to taboos

At year’s end, there’s no mistaking the social depth, geographical spread, technological sophistication, ideological diversity, and transformed character of political dissent. In expanding and consolidating itself, the community of dissent had recovered an old tradition of open protest.

That tradition was practically lost after 1969 although it put in a brief appearance in Baling, 1974. It was retrieved in fits and starts with Reformasi. Now, it’s alive and kicking.

Finished, however, are the taboos and bogeys used to contain, prohibit and justify assaults on non-violent marches, demonstrations and rallies.

Today, the regime spokespeople no longer bother to disapprove of ‘dissent for the sake of dissent’. Denigrating dissent in that manner was always a silly stance anyway, not unlike branding dissenters as being ‘anti-national’, anti-government, or ‘anti-development’.

How does one hang the ‘anti-national’ tag on protestors who attend events organized and to some extent protected by the PR state governments? Should one call the demonstrators and provocateurs who protest against PR state governments ‘anti-government’? How does one accuse others of being ‘anti-development’ when landslides and other disasters of uncontrolled development keep raising public awareness of environmental concerns?

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What culture, whose culture?

Nor is it feasible now, let alone credible, for the regime-controlled media to dismiss open protest as being alien to our culture.

The old ‘political culture’ stressing deference to authority can no longer be imposed from above. Why, even in UMNO, that bastion of ampu and bodek practices, they pushed and shoved, raved and ranted, demanded and protested – all forms of conduct unquestionably kasar by an older etiquette – to terminate Abdullah’s leadership.

A novel political culture has emerged. It’s continually reshaped by movements between the Street and the Net. It throws up spirited expressions of dissent that are reported by netizens, posted on websites, debated at blogs, spread by email, relayed by SMS, and replayed on YouTube. Consequently, politicians have come under closer and stricter public scrutiny than ever before, as PR leaders and governments themselves have realized.

The community of dissent has little patience with non-transparent rules, non-accountable economic management, institutional atrophy, and brazen displays of power. In fact, BN’s ‘post-tsunami’ internal dissension means little if not a belated recognition by UMNO’s subordinate partners of how counter-productive any ‘arrogance of power’ has become.

More and more, the public will not conform to authoritarian rule based on draconian statutes, arbitrary exercises of power, and heavy-handed measures. And less and less will ordinary voters surrender to propaganda and disinformation. As the collapse of UMNO’s Sodomy II-centred campaign in Permatang Pauh showed, every allegation can be met with instant rebuttal, every official version of an event undermined by a ‘leak’.

Goodbye to all that?

One would be naïve if not self-deluding to think that the significant changes of the Long 2008 presage our certain delivery from many threats posed by chauvinism, provocation, demonization, and repression. There have been many bright developments; but many useless ways of conducting politics remain.

Accusations and counter-accusations have become wilder as certain politicians grew more desperate or reckless. The political system has yet to institutionalize acceptable and non-repressive ways to checking the slide into outright provocations of the worst kinds.

Instead, the lodging of police reports – of alleged sedition over ethnic and religious matters in particular – and the filing of defamation suits seem to have grown from occasional practices into a thriving legal industry.

Let us be clear. As Teresa Kok’s responses to Utusan Malaysia and its columnists, and to the unceasing threats to her personal reputation and safety show, there are times when police reports must be lodged and legal suits must be filed.

But, just as society has become increasingly watchful of police and judicial misconduct, what does channelling political disputes to the police and the courts accomplish other than delay the dismantling of the shackles on freedom of expression?

And when the Minister of Home Affairs has remarked that someone could be detained under ISA for her own safety, can it be reassuring to keep turning to the police and the court as the arbiters of political conduct and disputes?

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A stronger Umno in 2009?

Around the time Dr Mahathir resigned from UMNO, he warned that BN and UMNO had no time to waste if they wanted to recover their lost voters before the next general election. Other UMNO leaders have parroted that line to justify dislodging Abdullah as early as possible.

It’d be realistic to interpret that argument to mean that UMNO looks to 2009, after the conclusion of its twice postponed party election and the planned change in premiership, to start retrieving the losses of power, patronage and largesse that they suffered following the 8 March election.

But how would BN and UMNO do so?

Some anti-democratic types in and around UMNO especially, perhaps goaded from the sidelines and pressured by suffering lower-echelon leaders, might think that a ‘stronger leader’ – namely, Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak – and an iron fist – that is, repression by different means – would return the political system to an UMNO-dominated normalcy.

There will always be some, blind to deep-seated disenchantment with the regime and its failings, who think that a ‘whiff of grapeshot’ would scatter the opposition.

A better society is possible?

Yet, as the 1998–2000 repression of Reformasi proves, the short-term pacification of dissent is not a long-term solution to deep dissatisfaction. Ironically, many of the Reformasi victims of Dr Mahathir’s resort to ISA in 2000 have now relocated from Kamunting to Parliament.

Politics today also doesn’t mean ethnic quarrels and religious misunderstandings only, however much some people may want to channel disputes in those directions. After the storm of 8 March, perfect or otherwise, society has become accustomed to the sight of 82 PR MPs, experience of rule by five PR governments, and the idea that a different Federal government wouldn’t have to be a disaster.

At this juncture, society is unlikely to tolerate headlong confrontation – between BN and PR, or between the Federal government and the ‘Opposition states’. In the face of global recession, new ways of cooperation, not discredited forms of hostility, are crucial to plan and execute national development. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah said as much by calling urgently for multiparty cooperation after UMNO’s Permatang Pauh debacle, although he may not have come in from the UMNO cold.

We must continually turn to our community of dissent: only there can we find the unifying hope for meaningful social and political change that would keep us from being distracted by frenzied antics or divided by reckless chauvinism. As the year 2008 comes to a close, that is the deep, deep significance of the Long 2008.

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Dr Khoo Boo Teik, an Aliran member, is emeritus professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, and visiting senior fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. He is the author of Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad and Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents
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