By Syed Akbar Ali
Its our 53rd Merdeka “Celebration” today. That is more than half a century. I think the time has come when we should seriously start thinking about when we are going to stop “celebrating” Merdeka.
Once every year we keep reminding ourselves that we were “colonized”. Once every year we keep reminding ourselves that we were weak, downtrodden and we allowed others to bully us into being their servants and slaves. Somehow I am not too excited at reminding myself once every year that my forefathers were so gullible.
Under colonialism, most of us were slaves while some among us were elevated to be servants. When the Americans had slaves (as late as just a few years before my grandfather was born) they had the “house niggers” and the “plantation niggers”. The plantation niggers worked the land, went barefoot and slept in the plantation. The smarter among them were made ‘house niggers’. House niggers were those who wore shoes, wore a full set of clothes, lived and worked inside the master’s house (the big house). Nonetheless they were all in servitude.
Maybe we can shift the focus of the "Merdeka" celebration. We can still call it Hari Merdeka. But lets shift the focus. Lets “isi” the Merdeka. Meaning lets give more substance to what it really means to be “merdeka” or independent WITHOUT having to recollect so much our physical freedom from the colonisers.
Because my dear Blog readers, friends, critics and everyone else, truly independent is something that we are still not. We are actually very far from being independent or "merdeka".
Merdeka means to be free. Freedom is the most important prerequisite for the human race to advance and move forward. And this freedom has to be delivered to the individual. It takes one free individual to write one book that can move a whole nation. It takes one free individual to invent one light bulb that will light up the whole world. Merdeka or freedom must be delivered to the individual.
In Malaysia we are still not free to think and to SPEAK our minds freely. I blame this on ourselves. In Malaysia if we speak freely we can be jailed. I blame this on ourselves too.
When we become complicit (bersubahat) to restrict our freedom to think and speak freely, we have no choice but to become the sort of simple people who can be easily entertained by balloons, banners, bands and brigades marching to music on Merdeka Day.
We fit into Rudyard Kipling’s racist observation that the asiatics are “nature’s children”. Meaning we are childish. We qualify to become the white man’s burden.
Until today, from time to time, the white man must make an appearance in our countries to sort out our problems. Why so? Because we tell ourselves that we should not think. The white man tells himself that he can think. That is the only diference. They become Tuan, we do not.
When we allow our thinking and our speech to be curtailed or restricted, we also become prey to cleverer people amongst us who will know how to use balloons, banners, bands and marching brigades to keep us entertained. Or they will manipulate us by promising us the keys to paadise. We will either be dancing or swaying to their tune. They too may allow us to become servants in the master’s house.
Yes we have the freedom of the media. The mainstream media is free to say what it wants, the non mainstream media have the freedom to say what they want, the Blogs have the freedom to say what they want. But that freedom is a circumscribed and a prescribed freedom.
If you are a Muslim Malaysian and you SPEAK something about the Islamic religion that is deemed as breaking the law, you may be arrested, charged and jailed under various religious enactments. And the latest information I heard, though it comes from an unreliable source, is that the Internet is now completely covered by new amendments to some penal laws. And the people who want to impose their conformity (meaning to block off your brain cells) are the religious folks.
If you SPEAK something about some public figure who has a major impact on your life or the country and your speech is deemed as breaking the law, you may be sued in a Court of Law and made to pay damages. If you cannot pay, you may be bankrupted.
If you SPEAK something about the Rulers, that is deemed as breaking the law, you can be arrested, charged and jailed under the Sedition Act. Other countries also have Rulers but they do not have such laws. And their countries are more advanced, wealthier and more harmonious too. They not only respect their Rulers but they actually adore them. Every single step taken by their Rulers is photographed and spoken about. How do you explain that? And on top of it all, these are Western countries. Great Britain, Denmark, Holland, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Monaco and Lichtenstein are all Constitutional monarchies. Japan too has an Emperor.
Not only should we not insult our Rulers but we should not insult anyone (without provocation). If there is a Law against insulting the Rulers, where is the equivalent Law for insulting an ordinary citizen? I hope you are closer to understanding my meaning of Merdeka. Why is it not necessary to protect / not protect one part of the citizenry with/without such Laws?
In Malaysia SPEAKING can be punished under the Law. Since speech must be preceded by thought, this also means that thinking certain things can result in punishment by the Law. There are parts of Malaysian Law which seek to curtail thinking. So are we really free?
Making quite a mockery of all this is the fact that the foreign press is available in Malaysia to say what they want. When a late Sultan took a young wife, the Foreign Press made fun of the match and ran a picture of the royal couple with an insulting caption underneath. The foreign newspaper was available on the Internet and seen by many people.
The entire Internet is available to bring in whatever news and contrary views and information to our fingertips (literally). No one stops the Internet. How do you punish the Internet? They go unpunished. So where does that put us Malaysians? We may get punished under the Law for thinking and speaking. Yet the same Law allows the Internet into the country which has no curbs at all on thinking and speaking.
If someone sets up a Blog from overseas (say from Timbuktu) and keeps posting “law breaking” articles about the Rulers, about Islam and says libelous things about people inside the country, how are we going to stop them, let alone prosecute them? It is impossible.
I am reading an academic book right now that I bought, which among other things, questions the most basic beliefs of many Muslims. It is a foreign publication written by a Mat Salleh. It is available here.
If you were a Muslim Malaysian and you wrote anything similar, your book will be banned and you may possibly be charged in the religious court under a variety of excuses (insulting religion, deviant beliefs) and possibly be jailed as well. Yet there are tons of books written by foreigners available in our bookshops and libraries that speak freely about many issues pertaining to Islam which if you or I were to speak about, then surely we would be hauled away to the religious courts and possibly jailed.
The foreigners are free. We are not. They can think. We cannot. How do we explain this contradiction? By just ignoring it? Pretend that it does not exist?
So who do we blame? Do we blame the Opposition? Do we blame the PAS? Do we blame the religious people? Do we blame the Barisan Nasional? Do we blame UMNO? Or do we blame our most favorite whipping horse : Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad?
I blame YOU. Yes YOU. Its your fault that our thinking is still so backward. It is your fault that we cannot be independent in our thinking and in our speech. You are the one whose son is the mind numbing ustaz. You are the lawmaker from all sides of the political divide who makes these laws. You are the mother who tells her children “don’t question authority”. You are the sister who tells her brother “don’t question our adat”. You are the the person who perpetuates our backwardness. You are the one who keeps insisting “this is what my parents and grandparents taught me”. You are the one who calls yourself a “commoner”. This is your belief system.
Then you express this “belief system” of yours through your community, through your association with others, through your religious organizations (of all religions), through the schools, through your place of work and through your politics. Until finally it reaches the lawmakers who simply give you the laws that you want. The laws eventually reflect your belief system.
This is a democracy remember. We make our own laws. We elect people whom we believe in, who then go ahead and make these laws with our tacit approval. They are our wakil. They represent us.
I think it is time that we force fed “Merdeka” into all of us. Of course we do not want people to falsely shout “Fire!!” inside a crowded cinema. That would automatically come under malice. But we must make that “kick start” to make all Malaysians really independent in thought and speech.
This means your neighbors must be free and clear of YOUR intrusiveness. Yes kawan, I am talking about you lah. Jangan jaga tepi kain orang. Do not try to prevent others from thinking and saying what they want. You mess with this freedom and we remain ‘house niggers’.
After a long time, we removed the immunity of the Rulers from the Court process. At the same time we have been building higher walls to protect the religious orthodoxy from too much scrutiny. Why?
We really need to unscramble the Libel Laws in our country. They give too much protection to public personalities. Lets cut them loose. Public personalitie are people who put themselves to the public for a living or for any reason at all. Your barber, the Prime Minister, singers, actors, Bloggers and writers are public personalities who must be given zero or little protection by the Libel Laws. In other words we (public personalities) should NOT be able to sue people easily for libel.
If you offer yourself to the public, then you learn to take whatever verbal shoes, slippers and bottles the public throws at you. Don’t run away crying and hiding behind the Court to soothe your ego.
Merdeka on 31st August 1957 was the beginning of a process. On that day we physically broke free of the bonds and the chains that kept us colonized and enslaved. Physically we are now a free people. But have we changed our mindsets? Have we made ourselves a people who are free to think and to speak freely?
We have not. So don’t you see – that is why we became colonized in the first place.