Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Right to Think

Brave New World (The Star)
8 March 2007

"Malaysians have their thinking cut out for them. The father knows best line is very much apparent even as we strive for first world status with an intellectually outstanding citizenry."


his is a true story.

I was once visited by a communist. No, no, this is not an adventure story about being attacked in the jungles of Pahang. The visit happened in my flat in Sheffield when I was a first year student. The communist in question was some English dude with shaggy hair and a paunch. If I remember correctly he was clad in pretty worn out denim. No tiga bintang cap in sight. And he was not carrying a rifle which was some World War Two relic. Instead he was selling The Socialist Worker, which in the late eighties was the UK communists’ paper of choice.

It is a reflection of my sad state of affairs that I invited him in. Yes, I was afraid he was going to drag me into the forests of the Peak District and hold me for ransom, but I had no friends and I was pathetically lonely. We spent an hour chatting about communism and how the mainstream press was nothing but capitalist propaganda. He then sold me three copies of the Socialist Worker for forty pee each.

I then settled down and read all three copies (incidentally, if there are any Special Branch officers reading this; let me assure you, this was twenty years ago and I have since lost those papers. Please don’t come knocking asking for them). The conclusion that I came to after reading them was; “If The Times is nothing but capitalist propaganda, then this is nothing but communist propaganda”. I never bought another copy and stuck to my usual sources of news (The Independent which I read openly and The News of the World when no one was looking).

The point of this tale is; if the idiot teenager as I was then could come to his own conclusion as to what is propaganda and what is not, then why can’t the vast majority of Malaysians do the same? Surely we are discerning enough to be able to read, listen to or watch something and come to our own fairly reasonable understanding of what it is and how valid it is to our lives and values. I am certain that we are not so stupid as to be little more than gelatinous glop waiting to be shaped by the first hand that comes upon us. Or are we?

According to the powers that be, we jolly well are. That’s why Amir Muhammad’s Village People’s Roadshow was banned by the Censorship Board (at the time of writing, an appeal is under way). It also explains why, without having actually seen the movie, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned his earlier film The Last Communist. The latter was apparently banned because someone who also did not see the film complained about it in the press. Communists are bad you see and any attempt to show them in any light whatsoever which is not bad, must also be bad. And we the people, if exposed to such works, are too dumb to be able to come to any other conclusion that the communists were not bad.

I’m not saying that the communists were heroes or villains. That is not the purpose of this article. All I am saying is that I am sick and tired of being told that the Malaysian public, and this includes me, is so immature and obtuse, that we need some higher power telling us what we can or can not watch, listen to or read. And that this state of affairs is for our own good.

This attitude not only smacks of a paternalism that is totally incompatible with a democratic state, it is also downright insulting. If we continue to allow our minds to be exposed only to what is deemed correct by those with the power, then we are subjecting ourselves to the worse kind of propaganda, one that is the result of ignorance. And this sort of propaganda is far more damaging then any old rag sold door to door by English communists.

Because if a population is not allowed to expand its horizons by studying new things, by exposing their minds to different ideas, then there is no way we can develop that “first world mentality” which we are supposed to have. It is vital that opposing views are given the light of day. It is only in this way that a finer more accurate opinion is formed. And it is only in this way that the validity or the invalidity of an idea is determined.

Sure, it is annoying when people don’t agree with you. I’ve been a teacher for sixteen years and a father for around the same time; there are occasions when I have been tempted to resort to “because I said so”! But one can’t have one’s cake and eat it too. If I want my students and my children to be thinking people, they must be allowed to think differently from me. If those with the power really want an intellectually outstanding citizenry, the same rules apply.

Unless of course, that is not what they want. Unless of course, a docile, ignorant populace is the best sort of populace. In that case, we have only ourselves to blame, if all we do is bleat into our cups of teh tarik and not reclaim that most fundamental of our rights, the right to think for ourselves. The right to think freely. The right to think.

No comments: