Saturday, November 26, 2011

Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011: The Rule of Law or the Rise of Mob Rule?

Parliament is deliberating on the Peaceful Assembly Bill, the essence of which is what is best for the nation in terms of balancing freedom of expression with regulating anarchic tendencies in the garb of it. As predictable, the opposition and anti-establishment elements have gone to town to oppose the proposed law, which recommends in principle that demonstration and assemblies be better regulated and channeled with the view of ensuring public order.

What is the bone of contention between the opposition and the legislators behind the move? Again as predictable anti-establishment elements wish to preserve the anarchic and emotive elements, while the advocates work towards neutralising them. The opposition rejects the proposal to ban street demonstration, to restrict assemblies to specific and confined avenues such as the stadium, and the stipulation of longer notice of intention and application to the authority. Those advocating the change in the law of course insist on those very things.

If the public chose to be partisan over the issue, it is clear how the alignment would polarise or gravitate.Basically the PR elements would oppose the proposed change, seeing it as 'draconian', out to neutralise their basic weapon or modus operandi, while BN elements would be in vehement support, seeing it as 'disarming' or putting the straight jacket on the opposition.

But then this is a serious issue involving public order, security and perhaps the very survival of our democracy. I propose we the public look beyond partisanship and the 'prankish' stances of both political divides.

The fact is that our democracy depends on public order and the rule of law.In our history in sombre moments, we admit our democracy cannot be of the puristic western type which can afford greater leeway to racial and ethnic sensitivities. Our democracy cannot!

Reflect upon our dark moments in history of ethnic relations, and you would know what I mean. Yes, some will be accusing me of raising the dark spectre of racial riots. But no, this is not 'raising the scare', 'the spectre of bloodshed' for ideological reasons, but facing history in its cold brute facts and learning instructively from it. We imperil our democracy in failing to distinguish between these different approaches to history. Machiavellian abuse of history should be distinguished from sincere learning from it.

Which brings to mind the recent scathing but historically accurate attack on the DAP and its leadership in Parliament by YB Zulkifli Nordin. Actually far worse abuses had been hurled at the Malays, besides those cited by YB Zulkifli Nordin, which had been left out perhaps due to sensitivities. There were abuses even to the effect of  compelling the Malays and Muslims to consume pork during the heated campaign of 1969. Incidentally, the remarks of YB Zulkifli Nordin should be taken together with his blog recounting his PKR or youth movement days as able lieutenant to Anwar Ibrahim. In the language of a direct participant and eye witness, he recounted the planning and deliberations that transpired in organising a street demonstration (peppered by emphatic 'I was there' ) . By his account, it was planned by the organisers which street to block, where to congregate in case of police action, at what stage cars were to be torched for maximum effect! These are disclosures not to be taken lightly.

Actually street demonstration is by nature violent. There is no such thing as ' peaceful' street demonstration. In this matter, it would be foolish for us to go by the pledge or pronouncement of organisers themselves. No sponsors or organisers of street demonstration would ever say they wish to organise a violent or anarchic one. It is axiomatic that all would say their intention is 'peaceful demonstration' in the name of 'freedom of expression' and 'democracy'.

A close examination of the structure and contents of street demonstration shows the following elements, regardless of the pronouncement of sponsors: a) defiance towards the law and authority, b) militancy and aggression in its style of political mobilisation, c) limited room for  genuine dialogue or reasoning, despite its surface appearance to the contrary, d) confrontational and antagonistic towards authority and other views e) heavy reliance on sensationalism or emotionalism, f)) anarchic psychology of the mob, g) authoritarian and oppressive towards the public in the sense of an 'imposition', 'loud', ' indoctrinating', and 'forced down their throat' , h) nihilistic, relativistic and Machiavellian contesting of social norms and limits, i) highly propagandist and manipulative of public opinion and mass medias, k) show of strength, brute power through sheer numbers, l) highly provocative (towards the law and authority), with latent intention of sparking conflict, m) dangerous play of bravado and populist 'heroism', secretly wishing for an iconic 'martyrdom', to be manipulated for escalating open violence, n) and many others.

 All of which enable me to say indeed street demonstration is by nature and structure a violent process. Of course I say so with the caveat that street demonstration is to be distinguished from the 'Salt March' or 'Spinning Wheel Movement' of Ghandi or  'We Shall Overcome' of Martin Luther King. These pacifist and civil right protests are by content and structure a different phenomenon altogether. They have nothing to do with the 'street demonstration' of Adolf Hitler towards seizing power, and its  variations we are witnessing in many Southeast Asia countries. .

Setting aside partisanship, I wonder just what are we witnessing before us? Where do we stand? How do we best preserve our democracy? How do we build a nation? What do we want really, transcending partisanship, populist tendencies, abstract liberalism and 'human right', bourgeoisie rhetoric, dangerous and convenient Machiavellian politics and uncritical personality cult? Of course by the' rule of law' we do not mean either a rubber ruler, pliable and malliable to vested interests. Such abuses should not be admitted into the conception of 'rule of law', nor compounded with it.

What is our choice effectively speaking, one we are willing to back morally or politically. The rule of law or mob rule?

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