Is the opposition at odds with civil society by Commander S Thayaparan (Retired) Royal Malaysian Navy
Saturday, January 06, 2018
Malaysiakini : “It does not take a majority to prevail
... but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires
of freedom in the minds of men.” ― Samuel Adams
COMMENT | A young reader ended
his opening salvo of a lengthy email exchange with – “Sir, you were part
of the problem.” I began the first of my responses, with – “Son, I am
still part of the problem.” I get that young people are frustrated. They
look around and they see old men with their old poisoned dreams leading
the charge for a supposedly better future.
Amongst other issues, this young man wanted to know if I was familiar with the writings of Hafidz Baharom and his piece–
"Don’t vote if they don’t change" – and what I thought about young
people not voting, and why it is that the opposition seems to be at war
with activists and civil society groups. Well, as to the first part, I read everything that Hafidz writes. I already made my case as to why I think not voting is not an option.
Mind you, I am not saying that Hafidz is wrong; just that I really want
to see what happens if Pakatan Harapan takes control of the federal
government. Does this sound flippant?
Here is the thing. In all my writings, I have made it clear that I do
not think that corruption is the existential threat facing Malaysia. I
think extremist Islam is. I want to see if a Harapan-led government with
a strong non-Malay/Muslim voice stems the tide of what I believe will
eventually destroy this country. That is why I am voting. Others, of
course, have different reasons.
As for the opposition seeming to be at war with activists, many
people who are involved in “civil society” (honestly, I am not familiar
with the current nomenclature) have written to me describing a hostile
environment when it comes to activism and oppositional politics. Things
have become worse, with the ascension of the former prime minister Dr
Mahathir Mohamad, the bête noire of many activists – for good reason – as the captain leading the charge to oust current Umno grand poohbah, Najib Razak.
Many long-time activists infused with fresh talent, who assumed that
Harapan state governments would be more conducive to change, tell me
that most times getting the “meeting” is easier than it is with the BN
regime, but actually getting things done, is more or less the same.
Often, they are admonished to not "bite the hand that feeds them," which
seems like a common rejoinder these days.
There was a time when activism and oppositional politics were not
mutually exclusive. There was a time when “civil society” and
oppositional personalities worked closely to highlight issues that
former minister Zaid Ibrahim termed the “real stuff.” I suppose that is
the double-edged sword of civil society making “tremendous progress
since 2008” as articulated in the "birds of feather" declaration.
I do not think civil society made tremendous progress. I think the
opposition political elite made tremendous progress buttressed by civil
society groups, who did not really understand the nature of the beast.
There is this assumption that just because the politics of civil society
groups and oppositional political parties aligned, there was some sort
of understanding. Politicians say a whole lot of horse manure to get
elected and count on activists to pass their message, but once elected
rely on their bases (partisanship) to stay elected.
The rise of a credible opposition and contender to the throne of
Putrajaya meant not that issues or principles were taking centre stage
but rather the rise of a new cabal of political elites who were just as
interested in maintaining power as their political opponents. What made
it even more tenuous for civil society types and activists was that the
alternative press and social media which was “issue driven” become
partisan echo chambers, where party affiliation trumped anything else.
In other words, if you are not with us, you are against us.
Many activists are in support of the “birds of feather” declaration.
Actually, I know many people who belong to diverse “civil society”
groups who support this initiative. Indeed, there is nothing in that
declaration that any rational person would disagree with. Yet many
opposition supporters write to me asking me to tell these “selfish”
people not to rock the boat and destroy Harapan’s chance of removing the
corrupt Najib and his cronies from power.
I know a few people on that list. I do not say this to name drop, but
only that “selfish” is not a term I would use to describe them, ever.
Furthermore, many of those groups in that list do far more constructive
and productive work than some state administrations and definitely the
federal government. To dismiss, mock or vilify what they say, especially
if you (like me) have a different view, I would argue is, well – and I
really dislike using this word – unpatriotic.
That is the only word I can think of especially when what these folks
are reaffirming are democratic and egalitarian principles that would
actually save Malaysia. If only political parties, like Hafidz writes,
were not “too chickenshit to actually stand for something contrary to
public opinion, and would rather coast along for fear of losing their
vote base, while trying to convince the conservatives to vote for them.”
Someone asked if I was a “crypto-Mahathirista” since I had penned two pieces, essentially arguing that Harapan should commit
to the game they want to play. I write too plainly to be a crypto
anything. You can disagree with what I write. You can accuse me of many
things but waffling or obscurantism is not on the list. So while I
disagree with Suaram adviser Kua Kia Soong,
it is not because I think he is wrong but it is because for this
election, I am committing to the game that I keep telling Harapan to
Lastly to answer the question in the title of this piece. It is not
that the opposition is at odds with civil society. It is the opposition
has become part of the establishment.
The establishment is always at odds with civil society.