Once this latest crisis is over, we need to regain the liberties we have lost and ensure democracy is back in full swing, Azmil Tayeb writes.
A popular adage in politics says, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
Depending on how it is perceived, a crisis can either be harnessed as a force for good or exploited for nefarious ends. The present coronavirus crisis brings out both the best and worst in people and government.
Think of the many selfless acts of kindness by Good Samaritans and the sacrifices made by frontline staff to help us pull through this ordeal.
The crisis, however, also exposes its dark side such as a sharp spike in cases of domestic violence, mistreatment of vulnerable communities, a spate of money scams, and the impudence and abuse of power by some in authority.
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A crisis brings with it pervasive and paralysing fear, spreading like wildfire through the community. People struggle to make sense of the calamitous present while confronting the distinct realisation of their own mortality.
This fear induces a feeling of sheer helplessness among the people, which understandably leads to a complete dependency on the authorities to handle and neutralise the threat. A crisis can thus deal a serious blow to our democratic way of life if we unwittingly give up our civil and political rights while allowing the forces of authoritarianism to creep back in.
Two historical instances come to mind: the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany and the 9/11 terrorist acts in the US.
An agitator burned down part of the German Parliament at the height of the Great Depression era, when the country was in deep political and economic turmoil. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party exploited the tragedy by promising the democratic government and the public to be the steady hand that could stabilise the country. That marked the beginning of Hitler’s meteoric rise, as he and his Nazi party wasted no time in dismantling the fragile democratic structure of the German government and society of the time. The subsequent bloody and inhumane reign of the Nazi regime needs no retelling here.
Shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, the US government hastily passed the Patriot Act. This new law allowed federal authorities wide legal powers to detain immigrants without probable cause, tap phone calls, and search residences and business premises without the owners’ consent. Many parts of the new act ran afoul of the US Constitution, but its acceptance was near unanimous as the rattled public willingly surrendered some civil and political liberties in return for the promise of peace and security. Even though the Patriot Act was supposed to expire (sunset) four years after its enactment, it has been repeatedly renewed and reiterated with almost all of its undemocratic components intact.
Although these two examples might sound extreme, we can surely agree that extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. Take the coronavirus crisis we are facing at the moment. Governments around the world have acted to combat the pandemic, some using sterner and more hardline measures than others.
In Malaysia, our government implemented the movement control order on 18 March to break the chain of viral infection. The order has generally been deemed successful: new positive Covid-19 cases have dwindled while the number of Covid-19-related deaths appears to be “plateauing”.
But the movement control order is not without flaws and criticisms. Reports have suggested the police may have acted arbitrarily and harshly in enforcing the order, mainly because of a lack of specifics and clear guidelines. One police officer is now being charged with raping two Mongolian women, whom he detained at a roadblock. Some politicians have openly and proudly flouted the movement control order with impunity while ordinary folks who acted similarly were slapped with stiff fines and jail time.
Politically, the new Perikatan Nasional government has used the crisis as a pretext for clamping down on free speech and freedom of expression. It has tried to censor legitimate criticisms of its policies and actions. This harks back to the old Barisan Nasional days when anything except fawning support for the government was curbed.
The PN government is also replacing heads of government-linked companies with its own people to regain control of these cash cows. It even wants to appoint MPs to these positions.
Unfortunately, the PN government has not yet convened a full Parliament session. It has instead announced only a one-day sitting on 18 May, mainly to satisfy the constitutional requirement that Parliament must meet at least once every six month.
One day is hardly enough time to discuss and debate crucial national issues, particularly the RM250bn “prihatin” (caring) stimulus package. The PN government put this package in place recently to deal with the massive economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis.
The exigencies of a crisis are no excuse for the government to shirk its democratic responsibilities and rule unilaterally with no accountability. It is during times of severe crisis that our democratic ideals and practices come under gravest threat.
Now is the time to find the delicate balance between civil/political rights and the heavy-handed, undemocratic actions of the government.
More importantly, we as citizens must be vigilant in ensuring that the government respects this equilibrium and that this arrangement is only temporary.
Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
We, the people, need to regain the liberties we have lost. We must make sure democracy is back in full swing once this crisis is over.
Charles Dickens wrote in the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”
The choices are undoubtedly stark in moments of adversity. So, in facing this huge challenge, let us all instead collectively turn this crisis into the best of times, the age of wisdom and the epoch of belief.Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
22 April 2020