Government near collapse as international critics and confused, angered Malaysian citizens alike heavily condemn its democratically questionable actions — but on what grounds?
From the 1MDB financial conundrum, to the harsh retraction of Malaysian freedom of expression, to the political backlash Najib Razak, prime minister of Malaysia, is facing — the times beg the question: what exactly is up, Malaysia? The spotlight of international concern and criticism of the Malaysian government’s tackling of human rights issues does not seem to be fading anytime soon, with the Human Rights Watch just releasing its 148-page report titled “Creating a Culture of Fear: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia” in urgent and impassioned response to the ridicule perpetuated by the vicious crackdown on vaguely seditious cartoonists, “anti-governmental” newspaper tribunals, such as in the Sarawak Report and the brash The Edge Finance exposé. The recent Malaysian freedom of expression repression has purportedly provoked an onslaught of notorious scrutiny in just over a few months, being featured in prominent international journals like The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and CNN.
But why? This isn’t news. The Malaysian government has, since its inception and independence in 1957, been infamous for the gleichschaltung of its cutthroat policies on zipping up the poor mouths and souls of those who don’t fawn over the government mindlessly. Why are these incidences still surprising? Recently, Malaysian citizens’ litost has imploded on social media, with Facebook statuses of Malaysians discussing — and by discuss, I mean blindly throwing cuss words — around the word “Najib” and “government”, displaying themselves as the people of a nation choked to death with their necks snapped by their own leaders.
This presents us with a harrowing paradox: While recent attacks on freedom of speech in arguably “more democratic” countries like France, such as the contemporary Charlie Hebdo cartoonist charges, have received a response of unparalleled solidarity in the movement to protect makers of art and twisters of language, and to free the words of journalists who are capable of rocking the system and entrenching ideas that work to undermine the federal government’s authority, a prominent Malaysian cartoonist who publishes defaming comics about the ridiculous political situation in Malaysia, Zunar, has received such an abyss of widespread approval that he was only condemned to jail for 43 years in Britain under charge of Malaysia’s moderate and logical Sedition Act laws.
A good question to now bring up is: Why are we comparing ourselves to these liberal Western standards of journalistic transparency when Malaysia has its own more reserved, less open norms and cultural values in regards to openness of discourse? What a more collectivist society like Malaysia (it scores a measly 26 on the Geert-Hofstede individualism scale, compared to a dominant 91 in the US) relies on is the chain-link control of language, because its fundamental values of democracy and faith towards the government are so insipid that it fears one illogical criticism of its Prime Minister will topple the opinion of the entire nation. Collectivist societies function on quiet agreement and harmonic consonance, and the Malaysian government tries hard — albeit badly — to keep the conversation about politics homogenous to keep this accord. If there is no general unspoken agreement on what is true, if there is a deviation from the standard thought bubble, the ultra-collectivist Malaysian society falls apart. That’s one theory to delineate the Malaysian governmental necessity to keep shameful un-orthodoxies down and under control — even if it means using the force of broad and vague law to maintain this elusive, perishable illusion of order.
Unfortunately for the government, the strategy of forced ambiguity in the legal system, when it comes to implementing laws pertaining to freedom of expression and assembly such as the anger-mongering revision of the Sedition Act in 2015, is turning into shreds as the current orthodox opinion of the Malaysian society is gravitating towards suspicion and distrust against the government. Anarchy threatens in Malaysia, as strife-free rallies evolve into tempestuous uprisings either decrying or defending the legitimacy of the government. Good — they are finally realising their freedom to assemble without uncalled for police brutality. Albeit small, this is change, at least.
In order to realise their fundamental dignity, Malaysians need to move apart from their agreeable, collectivist roots and continue to dissect, scrutinise and criticise any information they are given by the government, and any laws they are unjustly subjected to. This is not a call for Malaysians to move in the direction of Western liberalism: this is a call for Malaysians to realise their human dignity and the worth of their words — whether vomited or doled out in a pretty spoon from the mouth. They need to stop their bickering amongst themselves and realise that if united, if they keep this restless state, they will win the fight against their common enemy: federal corruption, power greed and discriminatory injustice in the parliament.
There is nothing and no amount of articles Human Rights Watch can publish about the fraudulent nature of the Malaysian government that will induce the government to undergo a radical and structural inner revolution without war or bloodshed. That issue stems from long established notions of unquestionable authority, rooted deep in the culture of Malaysian collectivism: one we are only finally beginning to challenge and one from which we are only beginning to cultivate enough courage to call bullshit on.