Why I won’t join the march against ‘toxic politics’

SEPTEMBER 8 — A group of prominent women activists correctly highlighted that Malaysia suffers from ”toxic politics“ like physical violence, online abuse, racism and sexism in the political sphere.

However, while they plan to organise a street demonstration against these things, it’s unclear whether the group of pro-Opposition activists will also condemn, with equal measure, the sexism and vitriol against Barisan Nasional (BN) women politicians.

Some of the most hateful attacks I’ve seen target the sexuality of one female BN lawmaker and the size of the wife of another.

Female politicians and outspoken women who comment on political and social issues commonly face sexist remarks and in some instances, rape threats. I myself have been called a “b****” and worse by both conservatives and liberals.

If rights activists want to promote civility in Malaysia’s political discourse, then they should be non-partisan and call out perpetrators on both sides of the divide.

This is especially pertinent since the family members of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is now heading Pakatan Harapan (PH), are among the organisers of the march.

Toxic politics affects everyone, regardless of what political ideology they believe in.

While the incident of comedian Sulaiman Yassin publicly slapping film producer David Teo for supposed disrespect towards the prime minister was alarming, it should be noted that Teo did not press charges. (If it were me, I would have slapped my attacker back.) 

The police cannot take action without an official complaint.

Malaysia’s political culture needs to change. There should be greater civility and respect between government and Opposition politicians and their supporters.

Lawmakers in the male-dominated Parliament should not make sexist remarks against their female counterparts. Lawmakers should also have the freedom to reject any Bill even if it comes from their own party, like in mature democracies, instead of blindly toeing the party line.  

Civil society can help play a role in creating a healthier democracy and greater engagement between the government, the Opposition and citizens.

Unfortunately, many of today’s civil society leaders are overtly aligned to PH.

There’s nothing wrong with having a voting preference. But civil society leaders cannot claim to fight for the interests of all citizens when they publicly express support for the Opposition.

It is particularly disingenuous to declare a stance against “toxic politics”, but only against toxicity from the BN side.

Of course, Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration has prosecuted plenty of activists and ordinary citizens for anti-government remarks. I myself was investigated for sedition in 2015 over my column.

But so did Dr Mahathir during his time in power. Besides the detention of about 100 dissidents, the 1987 Ops Lalang saw three newspapers — The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan — shut down. The papers only resumed publication after almost six months. Watan shuttered permanently in 1996.

If anything, it is Dr Mahathir who is the father of today’s “toxic politics” and yet, many civil society leaders today see no problem with endorsing him.

The issue of working with Dr Mahathir has nothing to do with “forgiveness.” Who cares about individual forgiveness for past wrongs?

It is about holding him accountable for misdeeds during his administration that affected the entire nation and to keep him out of mainstream politics, so that he will not repeat repressive and racial policies should the government change. (Already, the Bumiputera-only party he leads, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, is a replica of Umno.)   

If civil society leaders genuinely want reform, then they should censure PH politicians over corruption cases, mismanagement and undemocratic practices, just as strongly as they criticise the government’s many scandals.

They should ask state government leaders to take a leave of absence in corruption cases in Penang (two cases now) and Selangor. Or do civil society leaders wish to avoid embarrassing their friends in PH?

There is the chief minister who frequently sues the media, but not a word of protest from activists who supposedly uphold press freedom. Press freedom only when it suits them, I suppose. After all, everyone loves to use the media for their own purposes.

If civil society leaders refuse to apply the same scrutiny, which they accord BN, to a coalition that seeks to be Malaysia’s alternative government in less than a year, then who can we count on to keep the new government in check?

Will civil society leaders continue to remain blind, deaf and mute?  

There is nothing wrong with supporting the Opposition; civil society leaders should just make clear their objectives about a regime change, instead of pretending that they are independent and impartial activists fighting for the rights of all Malaysians.

They are free to sacrifice their principles for political expediency. After all, no one expects activists to be saints. They need to pay their bills too like everyone else.

Civil society leaders can organise rallies, file court challenges against the electoral redelineation exercise and do whatever they like, with a public acknowledgment that their work is for the benefit of the Opposition.

Otherwise, their duplicity will just contribute to “toxic politics” as Malaysians are left without a civil society that seeks genuine engagement among all parties for a better country.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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