Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer, and do not reflect the views of CEKU or UKEC.
You know something’s wrong when even the simplest gestures become risky. Last week many of us were made acutely aware of this.
On Merdeka Eve, a group of people were photographed stepping on pictures of Prime Minister Najib Razak. The result was the arrests of three young people under the threat of sedition and a continuing ‘manhunt’ for the rest of the group. Suddenly stepping on the Prime Minister’s photo – something no one even knew was supposed to be illegal – was threatened with criminal prosecution.
Such persecution by the Barisan Nasional government has prompted one of the suspects, a 19-year-old girl, to apologize for her actions. I don’t know what satisfaction the BN government got from bullying a young girl into apologizing, but in at least one respect it seems to have succeeded: suddenly people are apologizing where no apology should be necessary.
The Opposition response to this has been disappointingly hesitant. So far most statements by Opposition leaders seem to urge the government to ‘forgive’ those involved.
It’s a pity that so few are prepared to say what needs to be said: that those young people were just expressing their displeasure at the Prime Minister in a way that harmed no one, that threatened no one, and that the government has neither right nor cause to forgive them anything.
It’s a pity that our government needs reminding that in a democracy politicians derive their authority from the people, and that when faced with public expressions of displeasure, a true leader should square his shoulders and put up with it. Because in politics, criticism and even insult come with the territory, and someone who cannot stomach it or who can only respond to negative feedback with threats and coercion is unfit to lead.
It’s difficult for me not to see this persecution as just the latest in a series of attacks by the BN government on our liberty. I’ve grown up seeing how these attacks have infected the country with a pernicious self-censorship and reduced the mainstream media to its pitiful state, and I am unwilling to concede another inch.
I don’t want Malaysia to become a country where the Prime Minister is so sacred that even stepping on his image is illegal. And since without a corresponding gesture my words will be empty, here’s a photo to go with them:
The picture at my feet is that of Prime Minister Najib Razak, a man who I think has brought great shame to my country and who has done nothing to earn my respect during his time in office.
I post this photo not because I think that stepping on pictures is usually a good form of communication, but because I think that, under present circumstances – in the face of coercion aimed at making a simple gesture illegal or taboo – it is an appropriate one.
My name is Shaun Tan Zhi Ming, and I want to send a message that some Malaysians will not be intimidated by such ridiculous threats.
A copy of this photo will be posted on a Facebook page called ‘Putting My Foot Down’, and there I am content to let it stay – alone – as Henry David Thoreau would say, to constitute ‘a majority of one’.
But if anyone reading this feels as I do – that we have a stake in what happens to those young people, that we’re all in this together, that it shouldn’t be citizens who are afraid of their politicians but the other way around, that an assertive response is needed in the face of such abuse, and that we cannot defend the country we love without taking on some risk – then you’re welcome to post up your own photos too, and help me send a clear message to our politicians that we take our rights seriously.
Should you choose to do so I care little whose picture you wish to step on. Use Najib’s if you see fit; I think he deserves it. Use an Opposition leader’s if you see fit; the Opposition leaders have my support for now, but if they come into power and end up breaking their promises I certainly want the right to step on their pictures too, and I never ever want their images to become sacrosanct.
Remember that the day we become too afraid to exercise our rights is the day we start to lose them.
Shaun Tan is a concerned Malaysian. Contact him at email@example.com.