Brave New World (The Star)
14 June 2007
"Transparency is one of the key factors of a democracy. It leads to efficiency, as one can’t hide behind secret meetings and the fog of blame and counter blame. Alien nation: Suu Kyi’s supporters protesting in Yangon last month. "
The usual suspects from one side will chime in with their predictions of doom and gloom. And the usual suspects from the other side will choose to ignore those calls or claim western bias or some such nonsense.
It is at times like this that I ask myself, who cares? Apart from the urban middle classes, does anybody care about human rights, democracy and all those other words liberals like myself get all hot and bothered about? Frankly, there are times that I doubt it.
Fortunately, I have friends who are kind enough to show me the error of my ways. Not by lecturing or preaching, but by existing. One such friend, who shall remain nameless, is a Myanmar political refugee who has been living here for the past 15 years.
He left Myanmar because he was a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy, and harsh repercussions by the military junta for people such as him was a certainty.
When he left he was a second-year law student. Now he makes his living by being the best-read car polisher in the Klang Valley. My friend wants to go home, and a few months ago he was hopeful that the Lady would be released from her house arrest and that it would be safe for him to do so.
Those hopes have since been shattered and he will have to remain, washing cars and living life with a cheerful optimism I can only admire.
We may seem to be a million miles from Myanmar in terms of democracy and human rights. But even a million miles can be reached one step at a time. It is the constant vigilance against those little steps to tyranny that makes up the struggle. It is the regular guardedness against complacency that has to be maintained.
But why do it? Especially if it appears that no one really cares? The answer is because, despite what little despots might say, democracy is good for our country; and I would contend that at this point in our history it is absolutely necessary. Yes, even for the Government.
One of the things I have noticed, particularly these last few weeks, is a lack of confidence in the government machinery. This is especially vivid in the public reaction to the high-profile murder trial of Razak Baginda.
There appears to be a lack of confidence in the sincerity of the Attorney-General’s Chambers. The last-minute change in the prosecuting team and the subsequent delaying of the case has led to numerous conspiracy theories that ultimately question if we the Malaysian public will ever get to know the truth, and if justice will truly be done.
This cynicism is not good for any government. A government needs the trust of its people if it is to be able to do its work properly. Without this trust, even when things are being done with the best possible intentions, a nagging doubt as to its truth will surely undermine such efforts.
For example, we need to know that when the Ministry of Health says there is no dengue epidemic that this is so; and that it is not spin-doctoring to cover up an unpleasant fact that might pose a danger to the tourism industry.
This sad state of affairs is partly due to the lack of transparency in our system of governance. And transparency is one of the key factors of a democracy. Transparency leads to efficiency, as one can’t hide behind secret meetings and the fog of blame and counter blame, like the recent fiasco regarding our shoddy public buildings.
Democracy and human rights go hand in hand. Any effort to move away from these two ideals must be challenged. No matter how useless it may seem. And who better to do it than the urban middle classes?
If the working classes and the rural segments of our society seem uninterested it is, in a way, perfectly understandable.
It is inconceivable that when one is worried about the next meal, or the upcoming school fees, matters such as the freedom of a person to choose who he wants to worship, or that this country seems to be sliding away from its secular democratic foundations, will be of any great interest.
As I chat with my friend, I am struck by a realisation. I am lucky to live in Malaysia and not in Myanmar. However, this feeling is bereft of smugness or arrogance. I do not think about how wonderful we are compared with our Asean partner up north. Instead I am convinced we have to fight even harder to make sure we don’t turn into them.