Is It Part Of Our Culture?

A screenshot of a video showing pro-Umno groups protesting outside the PKR headquarters on Monday. 

In the first place, is it part of our culture to use physical force rather than rational argument to get our messages across? And if the assailants happen to be pro-BN, is it part of our culture for the police to not take strong action?

Kee Thuan Chye 

Last week, I was speaking to students of a higher institution of learning about a play of mine that they are studying called We Could **** You, Mr Birch.

When I got to the issue of getting Malaysians to discuss so-called sensitive issues openly, one of the students commented, “It’s not part of our culture.” I asked her if she was being ironic. The bright lass nodded.

She was alluding to the favorite catchphrase of the Government that is invariably invoked when it wants to discourage Malaysians from taking part in certain activities, usually those that are adversarial or threatening to it. 

One such activity is taking part in demonstrations and street protests. Many a government official has used “it’s not part of our culture” to denounce especially large gatherings that challenge the Government’s rulings and actions, like the Bersih and anti-Lynas rallies. 

However, when Barisan Nasional (BN) groups like Umno Youth or even pro-BN NGOs like Perkasa and Jaringan Melayu Malaysia (JMM) stage street protests, public officials are silent. 

And on one significant occasion at least, even the Prime Minister and the Home Minister seemed to subtly endorse demonstrations. This was right after the High Court ruled in 2010 that the Christian publication The Herald could use the word ‘Allah’. When asked about the intention by some quarters to stage a demonstration against the ruling, PM Najib Razak said, “We can’t stop people from protesting.” 

And minister Hishammuddin Hussein was reported to have said that the Government did not prohibit the people from expressing their views on the ‘Allah’ issue. He later said he was misquoted, but the question remains as to why he did not say unequivocally from the start that any protests would not be allowed.

As it turned out, the protests did take place. The next day, fire-bombs and Molotov cocktails exploded in a couple of churches.

Of course, demonstrations and street protests cannot be said to be alien to Malaysian culture. In 1946, Onn Jaafar led Umno in street protests against the Malayan Union. The fact that it was a protest against the colonial British administration does not make it any less a protest. So we have had a precedent. It is therefore bunkum to say that protests are not part of our culture.

Protests that resort to violence, however, are a different matter. 

Some protests do not start out with violence as their premeditated course but nonetheless do end in violence because of provocation, such as what happened with Bersih 3.0, for which the police have much to answer in terms of their mishandling of public order and their mistreatment of rally participants. But there are also those protests that are deliberately aimed at inflicting violence in order to intimidate a target group. This becomes thuggery, actually; it amounts to gangsterism.

In the past two years, we have seen a disturbing increase in this sort of protest – or, for want of a better word, counter-protest. Even the threats by Perkasa and Umno Youth to hold counter-rallies to Bersih 2.0 in 2011 can be filed under this category although they did not openly threaten violence (there was some hint that it could break out, nonetheless) and when the actual happening took place, Umno Youth’s counter-rally was a farce and Perkasa’s was a non-event.

The insidious counter-protests are those that attempt to disrupt rallies that are deemed to be challenging the ruling party and the political status quo. Such attempts can take the form of heckling followed by the use of robust physical force, as was the case when Umno Youth and Perkasa members interrupted an anti-Lynas gathering at Speakers’ Corner in Penang in 2011 at which Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was also a speaker and experienced harassment by the troublemakers.

The more direct approach of inflicting violence straight away has also been practiced a lot. We have seen this happen at the ceramah co-organized by Anything But Umno (ABU) and Hindraf in Shah Alam last year, in the attacks on students who were part of Solidariti Mahasiswa when they held a talk in Klang and on the students who camped out at Dataran Merdeka calling for the abolition of PTPTN (National Higher Education Fund Corporation) loans. 

There have also been frequent thuggish attacks on ceramahs held by the Opposition in various parts of the country, from Kedah to Johor. Even its roadshow vehicles have been pelted with paint and rotten stuff. It is interesting to note that by and large, such thuggery has been inflicted against the Opposition or against groups that challenge the federal government. Seldom has it been the other way round. 

Only last week, at Komtar in Penang, a group of protestors representing Malay NGOs tried to break the glass doors to get to the state government’s offices. They wanted Chief Minister Lim to withdraw his call made last Christmas for the word ‘Allah’ to be allowed in the Malay versions of the Bible in East Malaysia. When they were not allowed inside the building, they pounded, kicked and rammed the glass doors and shouted obscenities.

A couple of days later, a group of 50 protesters from pro-BN groups including JMM marched to the PKR headquarters in Petaling Jaya and threw eggs, bricks, stones, sticks and a traffic cone at PKR members there.

One of the protestors reportedly said, “We are not gangsters”, but he also said to the PKR members, “If there were no police, I would burn down your building.”

Speaking of the police, it is amazing to note from this phenomenon of political violence that videos recorded show that the police appear to do nothing when the violence occurs. They seem to just stand and watch. Which explains why of the many cases so far, hardly any of the troublemakers is apprehended. Which also explains why those who have been making trouble of this nature over the last two years continue to do so because they know they can get away with impunity.

Is this part of our culture? 

In the first place, is it part of our culture to use physical force rather than rational argument to get our messages across? And if the assailants happen to be pro-BN, is it part of our culture for the police to not take strong action?

Can anyone rightly justify such violence?

Chief Minister Lim pointed out after the Komtar episode, “If we allow law-breakers to threaten law-makers, then we don’t have rule of law in Malaysia.” 

Is it part of our culture not to uphold the rule of law?

*Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, and the latest volume, Ask for No Bullshit, Get Some More! The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer.