There appears to be a trend of sorts when it comes to public discussions on issues, sensitive or otherwise, in our country. Such issues may strike at the core of civil society’s movement or be of importance to fundamental liberties, or related to the proper governance of this country. Whatever they may be, these issues may strike the passion of some individuals or entities or tickle the intellect of some people resulting in a sudden outburst of opinions, views or mere rhetoric. These in turn would provoke reactions, responses, counter arguments as well as, again, mere rhetoric.
The proliferation of opinions and views on such issues is nothing new. Even when I was schooling, I would sometime be exposed to strong and passionate views on important issues from some of my more vocal teachers and lecturers. When I was in the university, all of us in the student council would sometime organise a debate on certain chosen topics which were close to our heart. We would then invite a representative each from the opposition party, the academia, the government and the student body to partake in a healthy, and sometime really loud, debate at the Dewan Tunku Canselor. We would call it “Debat Perdana”.
Those days, such debates would be well attended by the students. The Dewan would be full. Well before my time of course, the University of Malaya used to have a speaker’s corner, something not unlike the one they have somewhere near the Hyde Park, London. Images of Anwar Ibrahim, Hishamuddin Rais et al, with loud hailers in hand, giving rousing speeches would come to mind. That corner however was reduced to a mere corner after the student demonstrations in 1974, when the act of public speaking there was inexplicably – and short-sightedly, I must add - banned.
While the interests were there, and the capabilities as well as the abilities to articulate were present, the views and opinions were restricted to the few people who had accessed to them. The public at large was unable to hear the views and opinions, let alone participate in the process of discourse. The reach of the views and opinions therefore was restricted within a small circle defined by proximity. Added to these physical and technological restrictions the fact that the mainstream media was compliant to the whims and fancies of the ruling elite, opposing views and opinions against the government on various issues were rarely, if ever, heard and discussed.
In current times, there appear to be more and more views and opinions on various issues. I do not think that the people have suddenly become more opinionated or talkative. It is just that nowadays, views and opinions are much more easily made and heard in the public domain. On my part, I think the internet has transformed my life in this area. And I am sure many would feel the same way.
It is ironic that the very person who did not really appreciate views and opinions of others, especially when such views and opinions are in direct opposition of his views and opinions, is to a large extent to be credited for this transformation. It is Dr Mahathir, the anti-Christ of universal human rights, who liberated Malaysians from these physical and technological restrictions. By signing a binding government guarantee not to censor the contents of the internet – in his efforts to market his pet project, the Multimedia Super Corridor, to the international corporate world – he has effectively, albeit perhaps unwittingly, opened up the access to information, news as well as views and opinions to every Malaysian.
Malaysians embrace this new found freedom in all its uncensored glory. The rest, as they say, is history.
I sometime wonder whether Dr Mahathir knew or expected what would happen. And I wonder whether he regretted his decision. But one thing is clear. When he suddenly found that he was on the other side of the fence, he embraced this very technology himself. He started a blog. And his shouts and screams, raves and rants about this, that and the other could easily be digitally heard even as I am writing this. So effectively, and quite amusingly ironic, Dr Mahathir had liberated himself from the very constraints which he perfected. What irony. What drama. Or is that karma?
As is with all new technological wonder, mankind’s ability to positively utilise the technology evolves slowly. In Malaysia, it is even slower than normal. It is like the FELDA settlers who got a million each after selling their land. Some of them just destroyed themselves and their family with the new found wealth. It is the same with the internet.
Despite the ability to access views and opinions of varied intellectual contents and importance and the ability to partake in a meaningful discourse, Malaysians have, by large, failed to positively utilised the ability. I suspect that this inability is genetically cultivated and infused into our society by those long years of media compliant and restrictions – physical and technological – against public discussions or discourse on issues deemed sensitive or improper by the government. Dr Mahathir has a theory. He recently said that the mainstream media editors even imposed such restrictions on themselves!
Years of being fed by a one way approach to news and opinions, the Malaysian public has evolved into a society which is almost allergic to any meaningful discussions or discourse. This also applies to the government and its various agencies. This handicap transforms into a phobia against meaningful discussion and discourse. The symptoms are everywhere to be seen in the public domain. It manifests itself in various forms.
The government, its agencies, agents and servants are the guiltiest of the lot. Faced with a critic, or any semblance of opposite views and opinions, the immediate response would be one of denial. Never mind that the evidence which suggests otherwise is right in front of our eye balls, denial is the preferred response. The case of Kugan is an example.
If denial does not work, the next thing is to downplay the event. This takes place with the full cooperation of mass media machinery which is ever so ready to lie, lie and lie. Take the BERSIH rally for example. NST reported that only 4000 people attended the rally. Another form of downplaying is the act of half-baked reporting. “A Dato’, who drives a black Mercedez and whose name starts with the letter “A”, was arrested last night”, reports the media. Of course when an opposition leader is arrested, the media would scream out his name in bold letters, complete with a huge picture of the leader on the front page. “ANWAR ARRESTED FOR SODOMY”, reports the people’s newspaper.
Then there is the art of not addressing the point but the person who brings up the point. “They are crooks”, said Nazri Aziz in answering opposite views expressed by Dr Mahathir, Hanif Omar and Abu Talib Othman. A commentator on my article, “PAS Should Be Banned” asked “Art Harun, are you a Muslim”?
There is also the Nazi approach. This involves questioning the critic’s intention and telling him that he does not have the right to say so. “Zaid Ibrahim is politicising the matter”, for example, when the matter being spoken about is of course a political matter in the first place! This is followed by the evergreen call to “join politics if you want to talk about it”. The so called Persatuan Peguam-peguam Islam (or Melayu, whatever!) has a unique ability to behave like a scratched Compact Disc when it comes to this call. “The Bar Council should register as a political party if it wants to take position in this matter”, says someone representing that Persatuan. As if only politicians have the right to vomit verbal diarrhoea on whatever issue in public.
In matters relating to Islam, of course there is the proverbial “you-are-not-entitled-to-talk-about-it-as-you-are-a-donkey” answer to views and opinions. Applying this response, all of us, except for a few enlightened ones, are not qualified to talk about Islam.
It is therefore quite obvious that Malaysia is a prime example that technological advancement may overtake human ability to utilise the same. Strange, but true.