Public protest is democracy’s pulse

SEPTEMBER 7 — The Malaysian population’s response to a Rohingya street protest outside a Kuala Lumpur embassy last week has been telling — about some of our countrymen and their attitudes to democracy.

In summary, it displeased a substantial number of Malaysians that a bunch of foreign migrants — mostly refugees — dare disrupt the lives of responsible citizens on a working day by demonstrating in the city centre. 

“Were these foreigners oblivious to the fact a five-day weekend was to begin along with the SEA Games Closing Ceremony later in the evening? How rude!”

This would be an excellent segue to the mass genocide in Myanmar and how the military is edging them to extinction in the largely-Buddhist country, and use the situation to support my position. To defend only that particular protest panders to one section, even if a very influential bloc.

Easier to piggy-back on public opinion and appear as if on the same wave-length of the righteous scores. [N1]

However, I rather eschew the populist banner, and instead go on a full-frontal defence of all peaceful marches by all peoples.

It is a more terrifying burden, considering those virulently opposed to the protesters are from the upward urban pockets, of recent years the same folks backing pro-democracy events, protests and initiatives by Malaysians. They are an intimidating lot.

And here I am, defending the next peaceful protest by any group, even those not in it for Malaysia.

The detractors present arguments of such that economic migrants should mind their jobs, collect their pay and go home when the job is done. Or glibly put, that our country has enough problems without having to entertain any massacres in Rakhine.

Except, the naysayers enter a slippery-slope.

The first argument was used by the British and ultra-nationalists, in order to ask migrants here to self-limit themselves from Malayan politics. 

The law supported those admonishments and rabble-rousers were shipped off. Indeed, this government always presents pressing daily concerns as far more important than for them to be distracted by institutional reforms.

Self-interest is a popular argument espoused by states swatting away demands for reform.

So those tacking on to the arguments of their oppressors in order to set straight newcomers better be careful. They’d have little moral property to stand on when they champion their own issues.

They inadvertently brought themselves closer to xenophobia.

The lady doth protest too much

Protests are integral in nation states.

Consider this, public protests most certainly predate democratic governments of any type, but all democratic governments rely on their people’s right of expression to remain as democracies.

In the days of yore, rulers observed the universal rule that open dissent must be put down. A public protest is the height of dissent.

Unsurprisingly, absolute monarchies end bloody because it requires overwhelming dissent to overcome obstinate rulers.

The modern functioning state celebrates expression from its people, even if it is in the form of protest against it. The interest of the state is served by engaging protests and protesters rather than barring them.

There is no impact test for a protest. It does not matter if it convinces one person or a million people or no person at all. The worth of the protest is measured by the protesters, not by those targeted by it or regulators.

On the same token, there are no conviction, necessity, relevance or subscription tests for protests. They should go on, just as long as they are peaceful.

Protests bring discussions to the front.

It is safe to say I have much mistrust about “take it through the right channels” and “resolve it from the inside” clichés. When there is a successful protest, the message goes right to the top, and they in the inside can attempt to rectify things as quickly as they can before the next protest.

It is worthy to remind the party governing the country that it was a protest movement first.

Protests are also reminders to ourselves that we do welcome ideas in a democracy, no matter how mad they can be.

A man standing on a box in a park asking males to undergo vasectomies as a tribute to the mother-ship spying on earth from behind Jupiter’s moon, has as much right to speak as the next political theorist, as long as he respects other people’s rights to get on with their lives.

Uphold principles not convenience

The key attribute of a “in it for the long run” democracy proponent is introspection. Democratic process in a textbook is fascinating, on the streets it races up, sideways or bottom rapidly.

Which brings us to the ultimate defence of status quo by the party in power  —  not that it was forced, unavoidable or that they were waiting for the time to change  —  but rather that our opponents would do the same to remain in power, if they had the chance.

When those positioning themselves to new politics and a better Malaysia after the end of the present administration, are found to be indifferent to political aspirations other than the ones they hold dear they will be duly accused of being selfish.

Emboldening the rallying cry from Umno, which is to worry less about correctness of its present position because given a choice its opponents will do the very same back, starts to ring more true.

Which is why peaceful protests must be supported by all reform-minded individuals, regardless of their own familiarity of the issues.

The right to protest is sacred. It has its downsides but without it democracies suffer.

Democracy is challenging, but it has increased the voices in our midst. Protests are right on top when it comes to promoting freedoms.

[N1] The situation in Myanmar requires urgent responses, beyond statements and UN sanctions. I wish success to all international efforts, including by Malaysia, as it is a dire humanitarian crisis.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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