Winter in Bumi Kenyalang

APRIL 19 ― It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. Looking out the window of my London apartment, the sky promised warm sunshine and a fresh breeze.

After a typically long and cold English winter, I could not wait to soak in some heat. Putting on my sunglasses, I left my heavy jacket at home as I strolled to the local supermarket.

However, as I finished stocking up on groceries, I noticed that the bright sun had been replaced by menacing clouds and rain began to pour. I regretted that I had not worn my heavy jacket, but I was even more annoyed that I had fallen for the same trick that so many others in this world fall for: When winters are dark, it is easy to trust the first decent prospect of a better future.

However, the gullible person always pays in the end for improvidence, as the world is full of treachery and false promises.

Later on the same day, I met up with my Turkish friend Zehra at university and told her what had happened. She smiled wryly and said, “You merely underestimated the rain. Imagine if you had underestimated your country’s leader.”

Curious, I prodded her on the topic and in return received a condensed lesson in Turkish history. Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Spearheaded by the willful Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a nation-state based on republicanism, nationalism and a belligerent form of secularism was established.

Under the sweeping reforms of what has been dubbed “Kemalism”, Turkey was brought into the 20th century as the citizenry were introduced to free education, gender equality, basic institutions of democracy, the separation of religion from state, and a modernization philosophy that was led by the drive for science and technology.

In the following decades, Turkey faced many crises, but through it all it never wavered on its new modern identity. By 1993, Turkey had one of the highest literacy rates in the region, had become the most industrialised country in the Middle East and was pursuing self-confident international politics.

Then winter came.

The region was thrown into chaos as wars erupted between neighbouring states. September 11 happened, and the global War on Terror brought on a renewed wave of Islamophobia. As a result, Turkey was shunned by Europe in its bid to enter the Union, and an economic downturn threatened to undo all its progress.

However, from the rubble rose a charismatic mayor of Istanbul named Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. An Islamist who threatened to shake the foundations of modern Turkey, he was jailed and banned from politics. Nevertheless, the tide he started could not be stopped and his party swept into power after adopting a more moderate position and abandoning Erdoğan’s more fundamental Islamist policies.

Now espousing democratisation and liberal economics, the new prime minister promised to restore Turkey’s glory by all means necessary. And all means necessary it was indeed.

A promising start soon turned into disaster as Erdoğan became more and more authoritarian amidst allegations of corruption.Crackdowns against protestors began to take place, the critical newspaper Zaman was seized, and even an attempt to ban Twitter, Facebook and YouTube was made.

In 2014, a 16-year-old boy was arrested for criticising Erdoğan on Facebook. More sinisterly, Erdoğan, who has since become an Executive President after concentrating powers into the presidency following his mandatory retirement as prime minister, also launched military operations against Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

“So you see”, my friend sighed, “it is easy to give in to the temptation of great-looking promises. But the truth is that every beast will show its true face ultimately. You were betrayed by the rain, I was betrayed by my own leader.”

Back home, the Chief Minister of Sarawak Tan Sri Adenan Satem is a hugely popular figure. In February 2016, his popularity increased to 84 per cent from 74 per cent when he took over the largest state in the country from Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud in 2014.

He appeared to be doing the right things, from calling for more autonomy for Sarawak and abolishing toll collections on bridges. Based on a survey by Merdeka Center, the top three reasons for his high rating were his good administration, welfare concern and positive leadership quality.

At the height of popular dissatisfaction with the federal government and the prime minister following the implementation of the GST and the unravelling of the 1MDB mega-scandal, Adenan Satem’s popularity beat the odds.

I was personally impressed with the way he handled the usage of the word Allah for non-Muslims in Sarawak and how he made English the second official language in the state. He promised hope and reason, two things that had all but disappeared from the vocabulary of Sarawakians and Malaysians.

However, like the promising glimpse of sun in winter, Adenan disappoints.

Kusangkakan panas hingga ke petang

A true democratic leader would allow the exercise of democratic rights, which includes freedom of speech and the right to dissent. Unfortunately, the state of Sarawak under Adenan has decided to bar rightfully elected Members of Parliament from the opposition and its leaders from entering the state for the upcoming state elections. The flimsy reason given was to “safeguard the state’s harmony.”

How can the entry of opposition leaders jeopardize the state’s harmony, when all they intend to do is to partake in the legitimate political process of campaigning for an election? Surely, it is not difficult to arrest these leaders if they cause disharmony after their entry.

If that is the case, then by all means take action against them. Barring them from entry without the benefit of the doubt is akin to delivering punishment before a wrongful act is committed.

As much as I respect Sarawak’s immigration autonomy, I disagree with its use to perpetuate state paternalism at the expense of every Sarawakian’s personal autonomy to exercise their democratic rights.

A true democratic leader would allow the people to listen from both sides and make decisions for themselves.

Such a leader would allow equal treatment, exposure and airtime to both sides of the divide. If Adenan was indeed the type of leader he is portraying himself to be, then he should lift the ban immediately. By doing so, he would stand taller than other Barisan Nasional leaders and earn the respect of all Malaysians for valuing his people’s democratic rights and going into battle with fairness and impartiality.

Janganlah jadi seperti sangkaan panas hingga ke petang tetapi hujan di tengah hari.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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