The crowds that turned out to support BERSIH 5 and the vigils and rallies to free Maria speak volumes about the hunger and thirst for change, for justice and good governance in Malaysia.
An outrageous act
The arrest of Maria, in particular, seems to have generated an upsurge of public anger at the outrageous behaviour of those in power. That the government would treat a widow, a crusader for justice, a woman who has spent most of her adult life fighting for the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the downtrodden in such a cruel, callous and capricious manner was simply beyond the pale.
Instead of intimidating the people, however, Maria’s arrest appears to have strengthened their conviction that their struggle for justice, for good governance, for accountability is a righteous one and must be pursued with vigour for the sake of our nation.
And they turned out in force to send a message to those in power that such actions are simply unacceptable, that no citizen should be deprived of his or her liberty and rights and incarcerated in such an arbitrary manner, that laws such as SOSMA have absolutely no place in a democratic society.
Can we still call Malaysia a democracy?
The authorities can, of course, spin their fanciful accounts of foreign interference, sinister plots to overthrow the government or undermine the state but they fool no one but themselves.
In fact, the more frantically they spew out such drivel, the more they lose credibility. The more they insist they are acting within the law when they act in such a high-handed manner, the more the law itself becomes suspect.
In any case, the state does not have the right to claim legitimacy with laws like SOSMA that are brokered on false promises and applied in bad faith.
The Prime Minister’s recent statement that he has no reason to apologize for SOSMA because it is needed to fight terrorism is appalling given that it has just been used against Maria. Is the Prime Minister now suggesting that all his critics and political opponents are terrorists?
After these events, can we even refer to Malaysia as a democracy any more?
Intimidation stiffens resolve
Somehow illiberal governments never seem to learn that harsh measures against those who fight for freedom and democracy stiffen resolve rather than weaken it. Far from discrediting human rights activists, they make martyrs of them. Instead of diminishing the stature of advocates for justice, they empower them.
Have they learned nothing from history?
They tried to suppress the late Irene Fernendez, judicially harassing her for more than a decade; far from crushing her spirit, it made her stronger, more determined. In the process she became an international symbol of justice for migrant workers and refugees.
They tried to railroad another crusader for justice and change – Anwar Ibrahim – and today he has become a symbol of hope for Malaysian who long for a better nation. The longer they incarcerate him, the more his stature grows.
And now they are about to discover the full measure of Maria.
Already, she is something of an icon in the struggle for freedom, good governance and justice in Malaysia. It was plain to see that the jubilant crowd that gathered in the city center last Monday night to celebrate her release, love her, admire her and look to her. Rarely do public figures evoke such enthusiasm.
A generational struggle for justice
It is also heartening to see the generational mix in this struggle for a better Malaysia which people like Maria now lead.
The older folks, the Merdeka generation, some in their twilight years now, are coming out of retirement to join the fight. They were there when the dream of Malaysia was born and still hold on to it despite everything that has happened, still believing that we can be that nation we thought we would be.
So many youthful activists are rising up as well to fight for change and reform. It reminds me of the anti-war (Vietnam war for those of you who were not born then) movement in the US and the student activism of an earlier era in our history.
At the Free Maria – Mansuh SOSMA rally last Friday, for example, they sang protest songs and spoke with great fervor. Young student activists like Muhammad Luqman, Anis Syafiqah and Adam Adli are already paying a high price for their political convictions but they are undeterred.
They stand testimony to the fact that even the mighty power of the state – with its vast system of indoctrination, manipulation and patronage – cannot suppress the desire for change.
Clearly, the torch is being passed to a new generation with a passion for justice and democracy.
It is said that crisis often brings out true leaders.
In Malaysia, many of the remarkable leaders and voices for change that crisis has brought forth are women.
Despite deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes, they rise like giants in the land, inspiring us all with their courage, quiet determination, fortitude and integrity; cajoling us to action.
Women like Irene Fernandez, Wan Azizah, Maria Chin Abdullah, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Zainah Anwar, Cynthia Gabriel, Marina Mahathir, Noor Faridah Ariffin, Ivy Josiah, Anis Syafiqah, Siti Kassim, Zuraidah Kamaruddin, Theresa Kok, Hannah Yeoh, Mariam Mokhtar and others are now household names across the land.
And when the authorities raid a women’s rights group aimed at encouraging women’s participation in the political process and threaten to charge them with activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, you know that these women are becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Thank goodness for these remarkable women who inspire and encourage us to press on. Our nation is stronger, and better, because of them. They deserve our respect, admiration and gratitude.
The faith that brings change
Some may say that events like last Friday’s Free Maria-Mansuh SOSMA rally, and the vigils that preceded it, make little difference but Maria is now free!
Perhaps the authorities heard the roar of the people after all.
Now the struggle continues for democracy, for justice, for the abolishment of repressive laws like SOSMA and an end to harassment and arbitrary arrests.
No one should underestimate the power of the simple faith that was on display through all those days, at all those events, the belief that somehow justice will prevail in the end, that what we do as citizens, no matter how small, can make a difference.
The words of that towering figure in the fight for justice – Martin Luther King – come to mind:
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur |29th November 2016]