Article by Boon Kia Meng on 8th February 2010:
Death of democracy in Perak
Anniversaries, for better or worse, count for something. They are a part of the human habit of ritualizing and inscribing significant events or experiences into our personal or collective memories. February 6th is no different. On its surface, it is just any other day in the calendar. But due to a series of traumatic and undemocratic turn of events, my home state of Perak was transformed into a pariah state overnight, exactly about a year ago.
I used to be so proud, to be a son of ‘Paloh’, a peaceful, ‘horizontal’ city (due to Ipoh’s lack of high-rise buildings), surrounded by calming, green lime-stone hills and clean air. I used to be proud of the various public institutions, connected to the Kinta Valley’s unique history and culture of public service (remembering the legendary Seenivasagam brothers and how the municipality made Ipoh the cleanest town in the entire country, not to mention, having an ex-Lord President of the Malaysian Judiciary as our Sultan). In spite of Ipoh and Perak’s idyllic and beautiful exterior, morally, my home state is in shambles. The multi-racial social fabric of the state has been torn apart, as evidenced by the latest Merdeka Centre poll, where the races are deeply polarized due to the political imbroglio which has festered for close to a year. It is telling that the Perak constitutional crisis of 2009 did not remain a local issue, in spite of the machinations of the powers-that-be in passing it off, not only as legitimate, but having the cheek to frame the power grab as one where the current Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Dr. Zambry Abd Kadir’s administration is abiding by the legal process, and that what matters to him and his cohorts, is that they are serving the people of Perak well with an agenda of development and order.
What is missing in this great metanarrative of ‘peace and development’ lauded by Datuk Seri Zambry and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak (as the gargantuan billboards depicting the smiling faces of our two leaders welcoming every resident or visitor to the city of Ipoh, symbolizes)? For a start, buried underneath this grand narrative spun by the Barisan Nasional state government, lie countless stories of lives affected and transformed by the power grab of February 6th 2009. Mine is just a small paragraph in the dramatic chapters of ordinary, law-abiding Perakians, moved into action by historical events bigger than ourselves.
I remember, a year ago, I was still working for an international organization based in Kuala Lumpur, when I heard about the impending collapse of the state government, led by Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin. On the day the then Menteri Besar was sacked by the Sultan of Perak, I rushed back to Ipoh after work, with a colleague of mine. We drove directly to the Menteri Besar’s Official Residence and were a part of thousands of Perakians showing support and solidarity with Datuk Seri Nizar. We couldn’t quite understand why his request for the dissolution of the State Assembly was denied or that there was no vote-of-confidence taken as a matter of proper procedure in installing a new state government, if indeed the Barisan Nasional has the majority.
That night I saw a spontaneous reaction of the Perak public, Malays, Chinese and Indians, from all walks of life, coming together, coalescing as a symbolic expression of the people’s sovereignty, in the best sense of the term. For ordinary people like us, all we wanted was justice and our democratic rights respected by the powers-that-be. I felt robbed of the vote that we, the majority of all Perakians, had cast on March 8th 2008. The state government that I elected was now destroyed through a series of events that involved possible corruption and the workings of undemocratic forces.
I was distraught, and angry. I suppose, on hindsight, there may be a silver lining or two, for those who have eyes to see. But at that time, to be honest, I could not believe such a shameful and people-disrespecting act could happen in my beloved state of Perak. In short, I became depressed, and this depression would become progressively worse as democracy in Perak suffered further blows, democracy’s face pummeled to a pulp, such as the illegal obstruction of State Assemblypersons from carrying out their lawful duties on March 3rd, forcing them to hold their sitting under the infamous Tree of Democracy. A few months later, events reached its nadir on May 7th, when the Honourable Speaker of the Perak State Assembly was physically man-handled, assaulted and dragged along the floor by a group of un-identified personnel. Outside the Perak SUK, countless arrests of ordinary people, mostly clad in black, by the police, turned the city of Ipoh into a siege-like battleground.
What on earth is happening to my beloved hometown? Why has law-enforcement degenerated into selective propping-up of an undemocratic regime, albeit via a bloodless coup? On a side-note, I remember coming into close contact with a young man, while running away from the wanton arrests by charging policemen. We were rushing up the stairs to take refuge in the upper floor of an office lot. I have recognized his face before, even though it was just the temporary sharing of a shelter for a matter of hours. In the days to come, this young man’s fate would be deeply embroiled with the moral fabric and soul of our nation. His name is Teoh Beng Hock. I will always remember that his life story is much bigger than his tragic death at Plaza Masalam. Teoh Beng Hock, though hailing from Melaka, was a Malaysian who cared for democracy’s fate in Perak and was in solidarity with us when it mattered most.
The sorry state of affairs is coming to a head this Tuesday, when the Federal Court decides on the case of the two Menteri Besars. A year on, much has happened in our country, but the mood remains one of gloom. I find myself in conversations with friends, trying to amuse ourselves by making predictions about whether the Federal Court will find the case in favour of Datuk Seri Zambry (a Nizar victory unimaginable in our amateur minds) or not, taking ‘bets’ (rest assured, no money is involved here) on the judicial score being 5-0, 4-1 or 3-2, akin to football score punditry. It is a sad reflection of the level of confidence we have in our judiciary when the public thinks that the result is a foregone conclusion. Good, sound, independent judicial decisions should be the ordinary expectation of all Malaysians, but we are made to beg and pray for them when crucial constitutional matters are adjudicated, the present case notwithstanding. So, what are some of the hard lessons we can take from the Perak constitutional crisis, in the midst of the doom and gloom? I would like to offer three such examples.
After all is said and done, after all the emotional roller-coaster that the Perak crisis has put her citizens through, am I still proud of being a Perakian, a son of Ipoh? Perhaps our lives, as with all human history, is necessarily mired in ambiguities and tensions. “You can love your country and be angry at its actions”, a dictum epitomized by the life mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If this is the truest and wisest expression of wisdom for patriotism, then I’m angry at all that has happened…and yet I dearly love and am proud of my hometown and state.
A year has indeed past. Amidst all the setbacks and the sadness, a sliver of hope remains. I guess, nobody said that democratic change is easy. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, does not come on a silver platter. We in Perak have to learn it the hard way. But our hope and dream for a People’s Government in Perak shall never die, regardless of Tuesday’s Federal Court judgment.
*Published on February 8, 2010 | The Malaysian Insider
*These are the author's personal reflections of the Perak crisis as an ordinary citizen and do not represent the views of party.
* Boon Kia Meng, DAP National Headquarters Parliamentary Affairs & Research Officer