M. Bakri Musa
April 28, 2008
The greatest legacy the leader of a nation could bequeath would be freedom from an oppressive government. This realization comes to me when I compare Malaysia ’s experience during the 1997 economic crisis to America ’s current struggle with its massive debt mess.
The differences in reactions and consequences are attributable to one salient factor: Unlike Malaysians, Americans do not fear and are not dependent upon their government. Americans have a healthy skepticism towards their leaders and government, an attribute generally lacking among Malaysians.
With Malaysia in 1997 there was a general crisis of confidence, with widespread gloom and doom permeating the skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur as well as the suraus in Ulu Kelantan, and from the Prime Minister to the village penghulu. It also precipitated a deep and ugly split in the leadership that resulted in riots and ugly street demonstrations. The very symbol of our sovereignty – the ringgit – was devalued.
Like Malaysia then, America is today plagued with a mountain of debt on a scale, a universe beyond what Malaysia suffered. The American dollar is also being debased, not by the government however as with Malaysia , but by the more powerful force of the marketplace.
The American tribulation is even greater, as the leadership – in particular President Bush – is viewed as ineffective and irrelevant. America is additionally burdened with an expensive and bloody war. Yet for all that, there are no riots or widespread doom and gloom. When Americans are disenchanted with their president or government, they throng the voting booths in record numbers to vote for a change.
Our Inherent Freedom
In Islam, a ruler is denied “the right to take away from his subjects certain rights which inhere in his or her person as a human being.” Meaning, freedom from oppression is not a gift bestowed by the ruler upon the ruled, rather the natural state. Or to put it in the language of the Quran, the will of Allah! Citizens would consent to giving away those rights to the ruler only upon a demonstrated need for the greater good.
Many a leader, evil and benevolent, have used this rationale to take away this precious rights away from citizens. Even otherwise civilized societies are not immune to this seduction, as evidenced by the easy passage of the Patriots Act in America. Citizens have only themselves to blame if they were to grease the path towards their own enslavement.
Government oppresses less through sheer size and more through exercising unchecked powers. Scandinavian countries have large governments, yet their people are not oppressed or threatened. These governments get voted in repeatedly.
They use their might not to oppress citizens but to emancipate them. The police force is used (rightly) for discouraging and apprehending criminals, not for spying on innocent citizens or harassing political dissenters. Public funds are used to build daycare centers and affordable housing, not detention camps and police barracks.
The Indian government is also large, though in terms of absolute budget size it is smaller than most of the Scandinavian countries. Yet the Indian government remains oppressive and intrusive in the lives of its citizens, caricatured by the ubiquitous “Permit Rajs.”
By modern standards, Stalin and Mao Zeedung had access to more limited resources and far primitive instruments of controls, yet they were able to maintain a tight grip on their people, even long after those leaders were dead.
A repressive government led by well-intentioned and capable leaders can achieve wonders in improving the lives of their citizens, as seen with Singapore . Even when the leaders were less well intentioned and less capable, they could still do remarkable things, as with Indonesia ’s Suharto.
Nonetheless oppression is still oppression no matter how seemingly sophisticated the guises and excuses. Singapore effectively controls its citizens through inane and intrusive rules as well as punitive laws like its libel statutes. South Korea ’s General Park justified his on the pretext of economic efficiency and national security. It worked only temporarily in South Korea ; it will be the same with Singapore . Sooner or later citizens’ yearning for freedom will emerge. Once the flame of freedom is lighted, it can be doused only temporarily.
Let Your People Be!
In America , when someone says, “I am from the government, and I am here to help you!” it would be treated as a line from an unoriginal comedian. In Malaysia , it would be taken as a solemn promise, even though it is rarely fulfilled. This reflects the control the government exerts over Malaysians, or more charitably, the citizens’ faith (misplaced) in their government.
In America , Ronald Reagan became the most popular modern president by promising to “take the government off citizens’ backs!” In Malaysia , whenever citizens’ groups meet over a problem, their resolutions would inevitably begin with, “The government must do this and that!” That reflects an ingrained dependency syndrome.
It was not always so. There was a time when citizens especially Malays would never trust the government. It was easy then as it was a colonial one, manned by people of a different race and skin color.
Rulers exert their grip on citizens primarily through fear a la Saddam and Stalin, or rewards a la Singapore . Both are effective; the second however is more enduring as citizens could delude themselves into believing that they are doing the state’s bidding on their own volition.
Thus through a carefully crafted system of rewards, Singapore quickly reduced its birth rate. It was so successful that the government is now desperate to reverse course! Singapore ’s positive reinforcements prove more effective than China ’s odious and punitive laws.
There is a third route, cara halus (subtle way), unique to Malay culture where rulers exerts a emotional hold on their subjects through a collective sense of terhutang budi (debt of gratitude). It is predicated upon the cultural belief encapsulated in the saying, Hutang budi di bawa mati (we bring our debt of gratitude to our grave). Malays would willingly put themselves (and their children) into endless servitude to the sultan in return for some perceived favors, sought or unsought. Such controls, reinforced by cultural norms, are even more powerful.
UMNO leaders play on these collective cultural guilt trips when they continually harp on their pivotal role in Merdeka and Ketuanan Melayu. “Be grateful!” “Kacang lupakan kulit” (Bean forgetting its pod); “Melayu Mudah Lupa!” (Malays forget easily!); these are the phrases bandied about to emotionally enslave Malays.
For added insurance, the UMNO government also uses fear through such oppressive laws as the ISA, as well as rewards of massive patronages via the New Economic Policy. Hence the strong grip the UMNO government has on Malays especially. This communal guilt trip is just as enslaving as Stalin’s harsh police state.
As long as citizens are not liberated and emancipated, they will never realize their full potential. Their creativity will forever be stifled; their talent stunted. The best that they could achieve would be total obedience, otherwise known as servitude.
More dangerously, such citizens would go berserk once that control is suddenly gone or destroyed. Long reduced to human robots, they are unable to think or act independently. Today’s Iraq is a tragic reminder of this reality. This fate awaits all closed societies.
If that were to happen to Malaysia , it would be the greatest tragedy, for both ruler and ruled.