ONE of the common beliefs I sometimes grazed against as a child in a Catholic family was that menstruating women were unclean, and hence unfit to serve in church.
It didn’t matter that this belief contradicted what I had learnt from catechism about how God made everything. Including, I presumed, the female body and all her menstruating parts, and that all good things came from God.
Still, despite the irrationality of the menstruation myth, it was the gospel truth for a long while especially for my mother and the generation before her. Thankfully, by my generation, that myth was being displaced by other forces spurred by women’s growing economic and political rights.
The dictionary defines myth as any invented, imaginary or fictitious story, idea, concept, thing or person. Why make myths? The same dictionary definition gives us a clue when it says myths are “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution”.
Myth-making is, indeed, powerful. Just look at how it has kept women out of positions of authority within the church, and continues to do so.
“We need the ISA”
In contemporary Malaysian politics, myth-making is a constant. The most recent example of the perpetuation of a myth, in order to prop up the status quo, was when our prime-minister-in-waiting reiterated the need for the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Commenting on the Mumbai tragedy in an interview with Al Jazeera, Datuk Seri Najib Razak stressed that it was because Malaysia had detention-without-trial laws such as the ISA that the nation was protected from terrorism.
It’s not a new argument for sure. The Malaysian government has consistently tried to justify unjust laws such as the ISA. Acts of terrorism such as 9/11 and now the Mumbai attacks are used as proof of how much we need these laws.
Except of course, the truth is that the ISA has been consistently used not against terrorists but political opponents and government critics. Former de facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who resigned from cabinet to protest the continued use of this legislation from our Emergency period, very eloquently proved this was the case.
In a 2 Dec 2008 press statement, the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI) also pointedly asks if Najib was implying that blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, Selangor state exco and Member of Parliament (MP) Teresa Kok and Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng, who were arrested under the ISA in September, were terrorists.
GMI also notes that a majority of the ISA detainees currently in Kamunting are linked to the Jemaah Islamiah and Darul Islam movements. Most have been held without trial from two to seven years. “Although the government claims they have sufficient evidence to show that these detainees are linked to terrorism, until today none of them have been charged in an open court,” GMI says.
And without an open trial, the public will never be able to ascertain if these detainees are really terrorists. Instead, we are asked to trust in our government not to abuse near-absolute power.
“The police are fair”
The other popular myth of late has been that the police do not practise double standards when dealing with demonstrations. In defending the force, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said the police would take action against anyone who broke the law.
Those supporting ISA detentions were not detained
And yet, on 23 Nov 2008, two different groups — one protesting against the ISA and another that supported it — clearly received different treatment. The anti-ISA protestors were arrested while the pro-ISA group wasn’t. This led the Bar Council to observe that the police practised “selective persecution”.
The truth is, this wasn’t the first time that the police have responded differently to demonstrations, depending it seems, on what the demonstration is about. On 1 June 2008, a walk comprising less than 100 protestors calling for press freedom was watched over by police and FRU personnel. It was eventually dispersed under the threat of arrests. The walk organisers were told that they would not get a police permit even if they applied for one.
14 Aug 2008 news clipping from TheSun
However, much larger student demonstrations against the proposal to open up Universiti Teknologi Mara’s doors to non-bumiputeras proceeded without incident. Indeed, the police were reported to have said in theSun on 14 Aug 2008 that the UiTM students who demonstrated on 12 Aug had a police permit.
“We will take over government”
It’s not just the Barisan Nasional (BN) government and its state agencies which are adept at myth-making.
Even Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which leads the opposition in Parliament, has demonstrated its ability to use the power of myths to sustain people’s belief and trust in a Pakatan Rakyat government.
The most notable myth was that of 16 Sept. Despite repeatedly broadcasting that he had enough BN MPs to cross over to enable the Pakatan Rakyat to form government by 16 Sept, PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim only succeeded in proving that he couldn’t deliver.
But still the myth continues, albeit with modification.
“It’s not about superiority”
The notion that “ketuanan Melayu” is firstly, constitutional and secondly, not about racial superiority has also been creeping into the national polemic. Thankfully, this myth is being contested within the BN itself by Gerakan and MCA before it takes root as the truth in our collective consciousness.
Additionally, all anyone has to do to dismantle this myth is to look up the meaning of “tuan” in the dictionary. My Sasbadi student dictionary defines “tuan” as lord or master.
Jacqueline Ann Surin believes that Malaysians need to dismantle the myths in our midst lest our lives are ruled by imagined threats and fictitious benefits.