Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH) spokesperson, Wong Chin Huat, made the news recently after he was remanded for three days by the police under the Sedition Act for articles he had published in response to the ongoing Perak constitutional crisis. (The fact that BERSIH urged members of the public to wear black to mourn the death of democracy in Perak in the run up to the recent state assembly meeting probably did not endear him to the administration either.)

For the most part, his writings (both on his blog and at The Nut Graph, where he has a column) come down strongly on the side of increased democratisation and government accountability—he even wrote an article drawing parallels between the Malaysian government and the mafia, although he did not take the idea as far as Lysander Spooner did. There was, however, this one strangely incongruous piece in which he defends the need for the ISA. Since I cannot abide by any defence of such an oppressive act—particularly as it comes across as compromissary, and not least because it stands in stark contrast to the rest of his decent work—what follows will serve as my objections to his argument.

I shall start with the minor ones. Firstly, Wong assigns causality where none exists. He claims that because BN gained a majority of the votes in the last general election, these BN-voting people must also support the continued use of the ISA. This is disingenuous at best. People do not vote for BN only because they desire the propagation of the ISA nor will they vote against them purely for that reason. Voter behaviour is more complex than that and, in this case, those voting for the incumbent administration are more likely doing so due to BN's perceived competence, or at least experience, in running the country and the economy, regardless of whether or not this is actually the case. (One might argue that this positive view of the BN administration, as held by a sizeable proportion of Malaysians, is a function of our lack of free press—ultimately bolstered by the Printing Presses and Publications Act as well as the excessive use of the Sedition Act and the ISA, and compounded by our compromised judiciary—whose primary purpose is to inform the voting public, to the best of their ability, as to the state of affairs in the country, including, but not limited to, instances of ineptitude and perfidy involving elected officials. No wonder Reporters Sans Frontières gave Malaysia a rating of 39.50 for the year of 2008.) And all this assuming elections are free and fair, which Wong cannot possibly believe given the demands of the organization he represents.

Secondly, he suggests that the role of government is to 'coerce people to support it' through instruments of 'strong government' like the ISA. Using the spectre of imprisonment for an indefinite period of time without trial in order to coerce the people to toe the government line? We will force you to be free, indeed (with apologies to Rousseau and Adam Curtis). Sounds positively Soviet.

Lastly, and most importantly, if one were to follow the logic in the article then any majority decision would be the 'right' decision, regardless of the presence of a dissenting minority or valid ethical objections. The fact of the matter is, one of the key functions of democracy in a modern society is to manage the inherent conflict between the majority, represented by parliamentary majority, and the minority, which range from ethnic, economic and political minority groups all the way down to the smallest unit, the individual—precisely because majority decisions are not always in the interest of the individual and his rights. John Stuart Mill put it across best in his treatise, On Liberty: 'No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person's preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people's liking instead of one'. In other words, a person's preference is still just a preference, and just because it is supported by the majority of the people does not necessarily make it right, a notion echoed in Alexander Hamilton's Federalist no 10 nearly 70 years earlier.

Mill continues on the selfish factors that influence preference: 'Men's opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their antisocial ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest.' No doubt Mill was referring more to the propensity for government to intervene in personal matters, and even gave the proviso that power may be exercised over the individual to prevent harm to others, but as harm in this case represents nothing less than the curtailment of other people's civil liberties, the argument is clear: the individual's self-evident right to freedom ought not be impeded by the demands of popular sentiment which, even in its multitude, may not constitute correctness or even appropriateness, driven as it is by collective self-interest.

So good on Wong for his agitation against the BN takeover of Perak state government, boo for writing a patronising and paternalistic article in support of a draconian act.

posted by Hong at 2:13 am | Permalink |