Bersih– Art Harun’s Final Thoughts


July 14, 2011

Bersih – My Final Thoughts

Wise men profits more from fools than fools from wise men; for the wise men shun the mistakes of fools, but fools do not imitate the successes of the wise.” – Cato the Elder (234 BC – 149 BC) from Plutarch, Lives.

In my opinion, the biggest mistake that the government had made in the Bersih issue was to isolate a large section of society from itself, anger them and convert them into  Bersih sympathisers and/or supporters.

At some point of time before the Bersih rally – in my opinion it was about the time Pak Samad Said was hauled to the Police station – the Bersih movement had transcended its electoral reform objective into a full scale platform for the people to vent their frustrations, disappointments, angst and anger to the government.

Sasterawan Negara, Dato A. Samad Said

 To put it crassly, from that point of time, Bersih became a platform for many people to show their middle finger to the government, for whatever personal reason(s) they may have.

All the government had to do in the early days of Bersih 2.0 was to deal with Bersih and its demands. The demands were not about the escalating inflation and price of household items; not about Teoh Beng Hock or Sarbani; not about corruption; not about electricity rate hike; not about Astro price hike; not about the police, MACC or whichever agency.

The demands were just about a fair and just election or what was perceived by Bersih as such. That was it. It was politically related but not politically motivated. (For the uninitiated, there is a difference between the two). The fact that some opposition political parties were in solidarity with Bersih did not demote Bersih into a political party with the inevitable and attendant political baggage. 

The premise of Bersih was an idea, a thought. The idea was our election process is not fair. The resulting conclusion from that idea was that our electoral process needs reform or at least a change. That was all.

Being an idea, or a thought, Bersih operates and infects the masses insidiously. It is in their head that the idea is planted. It is not in their behaviour. A Bersih sympathiser or supporter, with the said planted idea, would not act in a way an Al-Qaeda member would. He or she was not going to strap C4 around his or her body, go to the mall on a Sunday, and buy the proverbial ticket to heaven by blowing himself or herself up.

Planted with that idea, a Bersih sympathiser or supporter would try to convince others that that idea was correct. That idea will infest and continue to infest.

The wearing of yellow t-shirts with the word Bersih was just a way or means employed by carrier of such idea to make known that he or she subscribed to that idea to the open world.

The yellow t-shirts were not even a manifestation of the idea which he or she carried.  With or without the yellow t-shirts, the idea still infests their mind. Similarly, the colour of the t-shirts, did not matter. It could have been pink for all they cared but the idea stayed the same. 

The idea, as I said earlier, was that the election process is not fair and it needs reform. And so, this was what, allegorically, the government was facing about a month before the rally. There were some yellow mosquitoes flying around in some wet markets; shopping malls; seminar rooms and o the streets. That was it. Nothing more.

It was like the proverbial bloody fly in the car cockpit. Irritating, yes. Annoying, yes. Threatening, absolutely not.

And how exactly did the government react to these handful yellow mosquitoes? Well, it took out some really large and heavy cannons and shot the mosquitoes!

The government firstly denied that our election process was not fair. That was okay. Because by doing that, the government was actually trying to supplant an opposing idea. But what it did later was beyond rationale. Any strategist, political or otherwise, worth his or her salt,  would cringe in disbelief.

It went out seizing the yellow t-shirts. People who wore the offending attire were arrested. How did arresting people wearing yellow and seizing the yellow item assist in erasing the idea which Bersih had planted? The idea was in the head. That idea did not reside in the yellow t-shirts.  That was  the government reacting according to the proverbial “marahkan nyamuk kelambu dibakar” (loosely translated, angry with the mosquitoes, burn the mosquito net) way.

First, the public reaction was one of disbelief. Soon it became a joke. The government, the police, the Home Minister and all else who were perceived to be the instigator to the act of banning the colour yellow became a big joke.

The joke then became even a bigger joke. That was when the government and its machinery, direct and indirect, embarked into phase two of their “war propaganda”.

I have stated in The Doctor is Not In that an oppressor would cling to every “fact”, even manufactured ones, to justify its oppression. I quoted Umberto Eco, in “Turning Back The Clock” who said:

“In general, in order to maintain popular support for their decisions, dictatorships point the finger at a country, group, race, or secret society that is plotting against the people under the dictator. All forms of populism, even contemporary ones, try to obtain consensus by talking of a threat from abroad, or from internal groups.” (emphasis is mine).

How true is that? Umberto Eco could have been talking about Malaysia actually. Did he have a digital crystal ball or what?

Barely recovering from shaking our collective head over the arrest of people wearing yellow, the government went into ape mode. Bersih was infiltrated by communists. It was also funded by Christian groups. Some Ministers and the Ploice then said there were evidence that Bersih had certain “foreign elements” bent on creating havoc and overthrowing the government.

All classic wartime propaganda. But really, who was at war? Nobody except for the government.

Sticking with the “war” theme, the government’s well known, but the most laughable and idiotic shit stirrer, Perkasa and its leader, Ibrahim Ali, launched a counter movement and called themselves Gerak Aman (Peace Movement, in English), with Ibrahim Ali as its “war general.”

So, we had a peace movement with a war general. And a war general without any war to go to. He then promptly issued a really peaceful statement, ie, the Chinese had better stocked up food and not come out to the street on July 9th.

This was followed by some silat organisation declaring that it will “wage war” against Bersih participants. The next day this organisation appointed itself as the “3rd line of defence” of Malaysia, an appointment which was duly accorded official approval by none other than the Prime  Minister himself later.

At this point in time, the government’s handling of the Bersih issue had moved from disbelief-dom, to jokes-ville and now to a surreal and burlesque town. The government had then managed to anger the Bersih sympathisers and supporters; isolated the Christians and Chinese; and turned itself into some kind of a mixture of Robin Williams and Russell Brand (no insult meant to Katy Perry, of course).

Ambiga, the  Chairperson of Bersih was instantaneously declared as an enemy of Islam. Quite how Bersih’s electoral reform agenda became intertwined with race and faith is quite beyond many to conjure. But enemy of Islam she was. That managed to isolate the non-Muslims and even the  thinking Muslims form the government’s stance.

 So, after that, the pesky yellow mosquitoes problem had turned into a full scale stampede of biblical proportion, joined in by the elephants, lions, tigers, snakes and what have you. Congratulations.

The climax of all of these – the mother of all fcuk ups – to me, was the mounting of roadblocks during the morning peak hours from Wednesday the 6th of July onwards.

By this time, even the normal apathetic middle-class Malaysians who could not even be bothered to register themselves as voters became agitated and upset.

This apathetic middle-class are a very comfortable lot. They will not move their ass to do anything if that would mean bringing themselves out of their comfort zone. Finding the TV remote control is bringing themselves out of  their comfort zone, to these people. They will not be arsed to do anything until and unless they become uncomfortable.

And of course, being stuck in a traffic jam in their second-hand BMWs, Benz and whatever was uncomfortable to them. And they told themselves, enough with this crap. I am going to show my middle finger to the police!

By this time, almost the whole section of the urban society was isolated by the government. Even the civil servants who were late for work were thinking of joining the rally.

Speaking of the police, apart from being busy carrying guns and waving the traffic to pass by, they managed to find parangs and molotov cocktails at Sogo. There you  have it. Bersih was bent on creating havoc.

Why parangs? Why not guns and bombs? And to think about it, the molotov cocktails were made in plastic bottles. Who in their right mind would make molotov in plastic bottles, hullo? From which university did the guy graduate? Off campus? Online course?

Disbelief. Joke. Burlesque. Ridicule. Anger.

What a transformation. The easiest thing to do was to fight the idea that our election process needs reform. That was all that was needed. An idea is fought by firstly, showing that that idea is not quite correct. Or that it was not credible. Then neutralise that idea with a better and more acceptable idea.

An idea is not fought by arresting the people having that idea. Or by banning a colour depicting subscription to  that idea. Or by declaring the person heading the movement perpetuating that idea as anti-Islam. Or that it was Christian idea. Oh my God. Fail!

Now, let’s not talk about what happened during the rally. Suffice if I say that the people joining the rally were not the hooligans they were made out to be. We all could watch all the YouTube videos and decide for ourselves.

The thing which I want to comment about is this. If the government’s handling of Bersih before the rally was beyond belief in its irrationality and unreasonableness, its handling AFTER the rally is not any better, if not far worse.

The IGP became a laughing stock when he quickly announced that only 6000 people attended the rally. Then the Home Minister chipped in to say the police was fair and in fact very restrain in their approach on the 9th of July. The Prime Minister said the police were a picture of tranquillity and displayed a monk-like attitude towards the rally goers.

Ha ha and ha.

KL Police: No tear gas fired into the hospital !!

The Minister Liow denied teargas was fired into compound of Tung Shin. Chua Soi Lek, not be left out, chipped in to say the police had to teargas the hospital in order to protect the patients. And today, 11 doctors from that hospitals states their willingness to affirm affidavits under oath that the police did in fact shoot water and teargas into the compound of the hospital on July 9. They said the Police even entered into the buildings to search for rally goers. (the full report is here).

The Prime Minister had left for the UK. The mainstream media went ape-like in blaming Anwar and mocking his injury. This obsession with Anwar Ibrahim is actually quite irritating. let me tell you all something. Most rally goers did not give a hoot about Anwar that day. That day was not about Anwar. It was about their middle finger which they had wanted to point to some others.

The international press – which of course, in the government’s book, are always bias and out to pursue their secret agenda against our country – have not been kind to the government. Even the Jakarta Post editorial (Malaysia is rich but not free) was not flattering. Yesterday, Bloomberg’s William Pesek was scathing in his opinion. Pesek is an influential writer and Bloomberg is a reference  point for many foreign investors. (his article is here). So, what’s the plan here?

Someone died during the rally. Have we heard a word of sympathy or condolence from the government’s side? I have not. All we had was the usual defensive “don’t blame me” statements.

Are we human? Or have we stopped being human? Since when?

Machiavellian Economics


March 6, 2011

Machiavellian Economics: Stop Massaging the Truth

by Harold James

PRINCETON – When is it legitimate to lie? Can lying ever be virtuous? In the Machiavellian tradition, lying is sometimes justified by reference to the higher needs of political statecraft, and sometimes by the claim that the state, as an embodiment of the public good, represents a higher level of morality. That tradition is once again in the spotlight, as the question of political untruth has recently resurfaced in many bitter disputes.

Did German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg have to tell the truth about the massive plagiarism that pervaded his doctoral thesis, or could a lie be justified because he was performing an important government job? Was the 2003 United States-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq illegitimate because it was predicated on a falsehood about the existence of weapons of mass destruction? Or were conservative US anti-abortionists justified in sending actors with a false story into the offices of Planned Parenthood in order to discredit their opponents?

The economic variant of Machiavellianism is as powerful as the claim that political untruth can be virtuous. Lying or hiding the truth in some circumstances can, it appears, make people better off. Deception might be a source of comfort. We might find ourselves warm and contented in a cocoon of untruth.

One of the most famous examples concerns the Great Depression – an epoch that policymakers frequently drew upon in trying to come to terms with the post-2007 financial crisis. Many countries in the early 1930’s had terrible bank runs, which inflicted immense and immediate damage, decimating employment by bringing down businesses that were fundamentally creditworthy.

There was one exception to the general story of Depression-era bank runs: Italy, where Mussolini’s fascist government controlled the press, including the financial press. Although the major Italian banks were constructed on the same model as the German and Austrian banks whose collapse had ignited the global conflagration, and although the Italian banks were just as insolvent, the press never discussed these unpleasant problems. Financial journalism was soothing. There were no bank panics, and the depression was milder.

Since confidence plays a large part in financial crises, Mussolini’s example immediately took hold. States could apparently almost magically create security and trust simply by imposing it. Adolf Hitler liked to say that the ultimate cause of the Reichsmark’s stability was the concentration camp.

Deception is instantly appealing to many individual businesses. Would it not be desirable just to hide losses until uncertainty passed and confidence returned? In that case, new profits could quickly be used to plug the gaps, and no one would ever know about an apparently successful deception.

Massaging the truth is eternally appealing to modern governments as well. They anticipate revenue in order to appear creditworthy. They reclassify foreign borrowing as domestic debt in order to look better in the International Monetary Fund’s statistics.

For individual businesses, financial misrepresentation is illegal. Most people can easily see why. The legal enforcement of honesty in keeping and reporting financial records is an indispensable feature of a well-functioning market economy. Without some degree of certainty that financial statements are meaningful, there would be a complete loss of confidence.

But government dishonesty is not that different. Deceptions, when they are revealed and the untruths unravel, are deeply disturbing. Indeed, misrepresentation by governments – driven by the belief that political ingenuity can stabilize expectations – is actually at the root of many financial crises.

In 1994, Mexico shook the global economy when the extent of its domestic (but dollar-denominated) debt in the so-called tessobonos became apparent. The Greek government’s misstatement of its fiscal position, coupled with the realization that the European Commission had overlooked or tolerated the Greeks’ accounting legerdemain, triggered the euro crisis in 2010. The revelation of deception makes it impossible to believe that governments are really enforcing rules adequately and fairly.

But misrepresentation is not just at the heart of financial and economic crises; it is also the stuff that drives revolutions. The immediate cause of the protests against President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was WikiLeaks’ revelations of US diplomatic cables detailing the regime’s corruption. The domino effect from the Tunisian revolution has produced further vivid accounts of corruption and deception, from Egypt and Libya to the Gulf, in each case stoking even greater anger and making more regimes vulnerable.

There is a powerful pragmatic argument against Machiavellianism, as well as a principled one. Given modern communications, a cover-up of the kind engineered by Mussolini in 1931 would most likely be unsustainable today. Moreover, any attempt to misrepresent requires further and more complex misrepresentations, which have serious consequences as subsequent decisions come to be based on erroneous assumptions.

To revert to the example of Depression-era Italy: the state holding-company edifice created to save the banks and maintain confidence proved to be an increasingly bureaucratic and costly burden on the Italian economy. A nearly indestructible behemoth outlasted Mussolini’s regime and survived for 50 years.

Markets work by a process of continuous discovery of information. Choking off the flow of information leads to distortion, not confidence. And, as we are now witnessing in the Middle East, the same is true of political systems. Still, no economic crisis or political revolution is likely to change governments’ inherent proclivity to think that they can know better.

Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and Professor of History at the European University Institute, Florence. His most recent book is The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
http://www.project-syndicate.org