Tolerate this and your children will be next
Ariani Rustam

My university has a great motto - rerum cognoscere causas (to understand the causes of things). The school has only one purpose - unbiased and objective study to discover the truth of the matter.

Indeed, this may be a Herculean task, given the normative nature of all things academic, but the objective remains the same. Indeed, the crux of the motto is to put everything into historical perspective.

To understand why things are happening now, we must learn what happened before - only then can we think of what to do next. Many things have happened in Malaysia this past month that require some sort of historical background to make any sense of them.

Of late, Malaysia made the headlines here in Britain on three occasions. Firstly, when the Internal Security Act (ISA) was used against 10 opposition politicians and human rights activists.

Secondly, when the remaining charges against the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim were dropped. And lastly, when Cuban president Fidel Castro visited Malaysia and embraces prime minister Mahathir Mohamad as a fellow ‘rebel’ against global imperialism.

Considering that the election fever is heating up over here, and that the newspapers can write about nothing else, making any space in the newspaper is pretty big news. At the very least, it shows that whatever happens in Malaysia has consequences which will in some way affect international relations.

Heads held up

The ISA is a particularly sticky issue in Britain, considering it was during British rule that the ISA was first used. A recent documentary entitled Malaya, The Undeclared War, produced by the BBC, showed how the sweeping powers granted to the British military by the Act was used and abused.

Many civilians, both Chinese and Malays, were forced to retreat to the jungle and many more were killed or arrested because they were suspected communists.

Crimes against humanity were also justified in the name of ‘national security’ - there were pictures of British soldiers holding up heads of suspected Chinese communist guerrillas.

One of the original drafters of the law, recently said that the ISA was never meant to be used against legitimate political dissent.

Make no mistake - the British are embarrassed about the use of the ISA. The communists were their allies during the Japanese occupation and they were the ones who supplied arms to the guerrillas.

Yet they pointed out that such draconian laws were necessary then because of the ‘real’ threat. What we need to understand now is the reasons why the ISA was used then and why it is being used now. One thing is certain, at both times, the ISA was used when there seemed to be a formidable opposition mounted against the government.

The only difference is, well, you could actually see the weapons and bombs of the communists then, but we are yet to witness the Molotov cocktails and grenade launchers of these 10 people detained in Malaysia.

At both times, those in power treated the people as if they were less than intelligent. One of the British civil servants interviewed in the documentary said, “We felt like the Malayan people ... did not really know what the communists wanted to do in their country. These communists ... they are clever chaps.”

Two rebels

The same thing is happening now. The police are telling us that these 10 people are militants out to destroy the country.

Substitute ‘Malaysian’ for ‘Malayan’ and ‘reformists’ for ‘communists’ in that sentence and you get the idea. The Brits knew best then, the police know best now. The difference? Well, that was 1960 and this is 2001.

Malaysians are not as easily fooled by the powers that be anymore. Especially not those who go to universities that teach them to understand the causes of things.

Especially not those who can surf the Net and read the alternative news. Especially not those who can read books and cite the philosophies of Socrates, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara.

Speaking of Che Guevara... such hype it caused us when Comrade Castro flew in to Kuala Lumpur to join hands with Comrade Mahathir in defence of the Third World against neo-imperialism. “I learnt that there are two rebels in the world,” the Cuban president said. “One is Castro, and the other one is Mahathir”.

There’s a lot to be learnt there too. It is all very well for Mahathir to talk the anti-globalisation talk now, but if we are really trying to understand the causes of things - then we must also question what brought us here in the first place.

Was it not Mahathir who preached ‘the borderless world’ to us? Was it not Mahathir who said that being nationalistic would cause us to be inward-looking and uncompetitive? Was it not Mahathir that first embraced the neo-liberal ideology, liberalising markets, freeing trade, began privatisation?

Was it not Mahathir who jumped first onto the globalisation bandwagon with his Ohmae-esque arguments? If he has had to change his tune now, where did he go wrong? Or is this anti-globalisation rhetoric (not to mention his simplistic outlook on the issue) merely that - a rhetoric? How committed is Mahathir to the idea of justice, fairness, equality?

And does this only apply to the international arena or must this be upheld within the nation-states itself first and foremost? More importantly, if he has had to change his tune now, and that means that something had gone wrong somewhere, what does this mean for our future?

It seems easy to run the other way when global capitalism seems to fail us - but have we fully understood the impact of a change? Or will we simply change our tune again in the future?

Potent figure

Like the way the government changed its tune over the Anwar Ibrahim charges. It was hardly a year ago that the government was so determined to pursue the matter of Anwar’s sodomy case, and now it has dropped all five charges.

What caused this? Is it because Anwar has already been sentenced to 15 years in prison? Or is it because they do not want to pursue a matter so sensitive to the political climate of the country?

A BBC news report said, “Anwar remains a potent figure in Malaysian politics.” Well, he must be. Just the matter of his back treatment required the intervention of Cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister and even foreign diplomats.

The RM60,000 spent on his treatment was made an issue. If Anwar was not such a potent figure, the decision for his operation would have been made by him, the prison authorities and the doctors.

After all, by right, he should be out on bail. The point is, Anwar is not an ordinary prisoner. It is important to understand why after all these years in jail, he is still commanding a presence in Malaysian politics.

Is it because of the man himself? Is he such a hero of the people? Or is it because people see in him the blatant abuse of government machinery against the people?

Is it because for the first time, people can see how the concentration of power in the hands of a few can seriously affect our individual liberty? We are beginning to feel the burden of not having our rights.

That is why you see people beginning to demand their rights. It is easy for the government to blame the voices of dissent on the ‘influence of opposition parties’. But opposition parties have existed long before.

There must be a reason why their influence is working now. Human rights issues have always existed, so there must be a reason why people are feeling the pinch. Workers are feeling angry and increasingly disillusioned about the abrogation of their rights. They are coming out.

Journalists are also questioning the piece of legislation that is affecting their ability to work professionally. They are coming out. Students, for so long the target of ‘you must be grateful’ taglines, are beginning to feel muzzled by the UCCA. They are coming out.

University lecturers, feeling they are unable to make meaningful contribution to the academic climate of the nation, are also coming out. Soul-searching Questions, questions, questions. There are more questions than there are answers.

And the government is not only refraining from answering, they are also making sure those questions are not asked. But how else are we supposed to understand the causes of things if we cannot ask questions and demand answers? The oppressive atmosphere is not just affecting our professional lives. It is tearing away at the very heart of our humanity.

Maybe that is why a group of local luminaries had appealed to the government to allow Anwar to seek the treatment of his choice. State intervention should not affect matters of life and death, but now it has and it can happen to any one of us. We must understand the reasons behind all this.

At the core of it, there is a mismatch of interests. There is a government that claims to be protecting our collective interest, and then there are the interests of the few that have been violated. But freedom, like interests, once it is violated somewhere it is violated everywhere. Slowly but surely, this mismatch is coming to a head.

The oppression goes on and on until the collective interest defined by the government no longer bears any relevance to the interest of the people. The dilemma facing the government then is this: If they yield to the demands of the people, then they must be prepared to restore the independence of the judiciary, repeal the oppressive laws and free the media.

But if they do all this, then they will also sow the seeds of their own downfall, unless they are willing to change and reform themselves. But the price of reforming themselves is too much to bear.

Something has got to go, and it will require a lot of soul-searching and internal conflict, which may also sow the seeds of their downfall.

Believe it or not, for such an advanced nation as ours, we are still fighting for our basic rights. And until we have our basic rights reinstated, anything else we say or do will have no impact. Hard or easy way Let me just throw out a point.

Out of the almost 100 Malaysians graduating at my university this year, only a handful are returning to Malaysia to work. You can say what you want - but maybe they, too, know that in Malaysia, understanding the causes of things is useless if you do not have the avenue to let it out, debate it and act on it.

So, we can do this the hard way or the easy way. But while the party in power decides what they need to do to make the changes (which are inevitable) as bloodless as possible, the dilemma facing the people is this, in the words of the Manic Street Preachers: ‘If we tolerate this, then our children will be next.’

ARIANI RUSTAM is a final-year undergraduate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and was an intern in malaysiakini for two months.