In which direction is our country heading?

By Farish A. Noor

Nothing stirs the humbug soup better than spurious talk of patriotism and loyalty. The saddest thing of all is that more often than not whenever there is the rallying call to demonstrate one’s patriotism and to show one’s love for the nation, it comes from the most narrow-minded, chauvinistic and intolerant quarters of society.

This was demonstrated in Malaysia recently when political differences between the ruling National Front coalition led by the UMNO party and the opposition People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) spilled out onto the streets. In the wake of the take-over of the state assembly of the state of Perak by the National Front, several politicians of the People’s Alliance – including veteran opposition politicians like Karpal Singh of the Democratic Action Party and the former Chief Minister of the state Nizar Jamaluddin – cried foul over the means that were used to wrestle control of the state assembly from their hands. Complicating matters was the role of the Sultan of Perak who chose not to dissolve the Perak Assembly but instead allow for a new National Front-led state government in a matter of days.

Now from the wider perspective of world politics, the goings-on in the state of Perak somewhere in North Malaysia may not have even registered a blip on the international news radar. Indeed, years from now the historian may write on the episode and sum it up in one sentence, as an instance of power changing hands in a controversial manner.

But what is alarming was the reaction of the Youth Wing of the UMNO party that reacted to the protests of the opposition party leaders by condemning them for having the temerity to question the process and the role of the Sultan in the debacle.
Among the leaders of the UMNO Youth Wing who were present to further complicate the situation was Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law of the Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who is stepping down from his post as Prime Minister by March this year. Speaking before a crowd of his loyal fans and supporters, Khairy was reported to have asked them “in the past, what did we do to traitors?” – to which they replied “Kill them!”That chants for death and vengeance can be made in public like this and at a demonstration led by a politician said to have been educated at Oxford suggests that Malaysian politics has reached a new low of late. For a country that once aspired to attain ‘first world status’ and a ‘first world mentality’ – to quote Prime Minister Badawi, father-in-law to Khairy himself – there seems little to suggest that Malaysian politics today has evolved any further than the sorry standards of Bantuland.

When right-wing conservative politicians lead rallies that end with chants for death and retribution, we know that the normative operational rules of democratic politics have been breached and that we are now on a different playing field altogether. One is reminded of the hate-speeches of the Nazis and Fascists of Germany and Italy who likewise claimed the values of Patriotism and love of the nation as exclusively theirs; and who decried and condemned their opponents as the enemies of the state, worthy of banishment, exile, persecution, imprisonment and ultimately death.

Likewise we have seen the same sorry state of affairs in many an other failed state and dysfunctional polity where the democratic process is all but redundant and the rule of law usurped by the might of thugs and squads of goondas instead. Indonesia and the Philippines during the era of Suharto and Marcos witnessed the use of such right-wing stormtroopers who hounded the political enemies of their paymasters; and who were later responsible for a host of attacks, killings and disappearances. In Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto contributed to the slide in law and order when he too created his own para-military force to serve the interests of himself and his party; but which ultimately helped only to erode even further the credibility of the state and the process of law in the country.

Is Malaysia heading down the path of these countries too, then? Well thus far it can be surmised that an education at Oxford – sponsored or self-financed – certainly does not serve as a guarantee of a democratic outlook or a mature mindset. Had this been the behaviour of spotty teenagers suffering from hormonal imbalance, one could have dismissed the demonstrations in Perak as a case of stupid boys doing what stupid boys do.. But this was a demonstration organised by a political party, led by an aspiring politician, who was savvy enough to realise the full import and gravity of the words he uttered, and cognisant of the emotional effect they were bound to have.

Hate speech is hate speech, even if it is cloaked in the guise of a misguided patriotism. The pressing need at the moment is for Malaysians to reclaim the value and meaning of patriotism again, and not let it be defined solely by those who equate patriotism with love of themselves, their party or their political interests. Should that come to pass, then hope will surely be lost.

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