ANYONE familiar with the UK Riots and the Bersih rally would have been gobsmacked by Malaysian politicians comparing the two in gloating fashion recently. According to no less than our prime minister, the UK Riots apparently justify the Malaysian government’s actions in stopping the Bersih rally. Datuk Seri Najib Razak reportedly said the government wanted to avoid incidents that could lead to a riot “like the burning of shops or attacks on individuals.”
But as many have pointed out, including within Umno, the Bersih rally was very different from the UK riots. The origins of the rioting in London had more similarities to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, after motorist Rodney King was brutally beaten by the police. It began in a particular neighbourhood, but spread when people from various neighbourhoods joined in to burn and loot the streets of LA, because the opportunity presented itself.
To compare this with Bersih 2.0, where citizens from all backgrounds were rallying for free and fair elections, is misleading, as it is dishonest.
But this is hardly the first time our leaders have tried to draw disingenuous comparisons with foreign countries to score cheap points.
“The West copies us”
When it comes to Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, proponents of the act often mention the US’s Patriot Act and the UK’s Terrorism Act in comparison.
Lawyer and blogger Art Harun once frustratingly pointed out a 2009 poll on the Home Ministry website which asked: “Do you know, the USA and Britain also have preventive (detention) legislation known as the Anti-Terrorism Act and Patriot Act. [The Internal Security Act] (Malaysia) is among the law which was referred by them.”
As Art and others have pointed out, such comparisons are shallow and “cheap”.
Among the important facts leisurely ignored about the UK and US laws are that they only apply to acts of terrorism; have a shorter and defined detention period; and have safeguards via the judicial system.
As The Economist pointed out in a 2003 article: “…even the most ardent anti-American does not contend that the Patriot Act is being, or could conceivably be, used against legal political parties that oppose the Republicans” (who were then in power). The same however, cannot be said about Malaysia’s ISA, as the many political prisoners who have been detained under it can testify.
This is not to say the laws in the UK and US are great and wholesome in themselves. There are debates on these acts, with human rights groups saying they are an affront to certain civil liberties.
But is it not feeble and a little embarrassing to argue that “These developed Western nations have them too, ergo Malaysia is right to have such a law and is setting an example for others?”
“The West isn’t better”
Even the recent phone hacking by UK tabloid News of the World (NOTW) was a source of gloating by some Malaysians. According to some, this showed that Western notions of freedom of the press were hollow and therefore justified reining in the media.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said on his blog: “It is shocking to find that they (the Western press) are really no better than us, that given half a chance they would cheat and abuse their positions, that they would forget human rights.”
It is true that the NOTW scandal showed how journalism ethics were thrown out the window. But other facts are far more interesting. All other UK media were free to report on the case, with many lambasting Prime Minister David Cameron. There were strict parliamentary proceedings investigating the matter and the police force have been publicly taken to task for alleged corrupt transgressions.
Anyone watching the live BBC television castings would have seen billionaire mogul Rupert Murdoch subjected to harsh grilling by British parliamentarians. This highlights the fact that in the UK — in this instance at least — the need for transparency and accountability was not made secondary to the interests of the rich and powerful.
If there is a need to compare and contrast, why not take those more salient points to do with media freedom? Why just centre the argument on the simplest point there is, tainting all UK media with the same NOTW brush?
Comparing with the best
As we can see in the case of the UK Riots, developed nations have their fair share of problems, ones which require some deep soul-searching. Indeed, their education system has been criticised, protests have been known to become violent in the UK, and the British police have long been accused of racial profiling and heavy-handedness.
But look deeper into the post-riot reactions.
The British have had plenty of public debates on the issue on television, newspapers and the internet. Whether with youths, politicians, activists and rioters, or those from the left and right, the emphasis is on trying to reflect on causes and solutions.
It has been highlighted across the board how communities are taking back their neighbourhoods with Twitter campaigns like #riotcleanup, and how some have appealed for calm and forgiveness. There is a desire to use terms such as rioters and protestors carefully.
To protect the peace and inform the public, the government has a range of avenues, such as advice for the public and a reminder to youths and those arrested in suspicion of rioting on their human rights. The government also has an e-petitions site that allows citizens to voice their opinions, with popular ones considered for debate in the House of Commons.
If we want to compare, can’t we take the best of the foreign examples, rather than the simplistic route that serves to educate no one?
And if we really want to be smug, can Malaysia first sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other key human rights treaties, where it joins countries like Myanmar and Saudi Arabia as non-signatories?
And if we want to be respected as a country aiming for developed status in 2020, shouldn’t we reach up to the debate, as befitting a developed nation, rather than dumbing it down?
JW Tan says
Schadenfreude is unbecoming at the best of times, and positively silly in politicians. We have a diplomatic service for a reason.
I absolutely agree it’s the reaction and debate surrounding the riots that are the key reasons why the UK comes out better than Malaysia. I note that at no point did the British police fire tear gas at anyone despite heavy pressure to do so from certain segments of the public. Let’s see Malaysian government apologists explain that!
More tangentially, I wonder if we will continue to look towards the UK and the USA for pointers on government policy. I know, for example, there are several ‘lawatan sambil belajar’ involving senior teachers, organised by the Kementerian Pelajaran to the UK every year, sometimes lasting for weeks, or even months. If the UK educational system produces unskilled rioters, why should these visits continue? Why not go to countries that are, you know, highly ranked in the PISA rankings? Like China, South Korea and Singapore?
Of course, if I were cynical I would say that the three countries are much less appealing holiday destinations, especially our neighbour across the causeway…