Whos Afraid of Civil Disobedience? Part II

February 4, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Faruq Nelson

Below is (concluding) Part II of the abbreviated version of Dr Faruq Nelson’s paper in which he examines whether civil disobedience is relevant in Malaysia. The discussion applies to Singapore just as well. Dr Nelson lectured in philosophy at the International Islamic University Malaysia from 1989 to 1992. He currently teaches philosophy at Parkland College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while completing a doctoral dissertation on human rights at the latter institution.

It should be obvious by now that it would be a mistake to maintain that civil disobedience is not relevant to Malaysia because Malaysia is a democracy. For civil disobedience has an important role in any functioning democracy. A general disposition to engage in justified civil disobedienceeven if the need for such action never actually arisesstrengthens mutual commitment to democratic values by reassuring fellow citizens that substantial social wrongs will not long be tolerated, thereby encouraging those with grievances to have faith in normal mechanisms for seeking redress.

Because civil disobedience invokes shared principles, someone who considers a particular wrong sufficiently intolerable that illegal means are required to set it right can test his assessment of the situation against the judgment of the community as a whole. Absent a general disposition to engage in civil disobedience, he might suspect that others do not join him in combating the wrong simply because they cannot be bothered, or worse because they are themselves active participants in the wrong. But knowing that the great majority of fellow citizens are willing to resort to civil disobedience rather than acquiesce in substantial wrongs, if he nevertheless finds others are not ready to join him in civil disobedience then he must reconsider whether the wrong is really so egregious as he believes. On further reflection, he is likely to discover that he has neglected to pursue legal avenues that might reasonably be expected to remedy the wrong in question. Thus civil disobedience, despite whatever social risks it may involve, in fact reinforces democratic society. In this regard the practice of civil disobedience is as important to maintaining a democratic polity as are institutions like regular elections, an independent judiciary, and free and responsible media.

However, someone who considers civil disobedience irrelevant to Malaysia may object that this is the case not because Malaysia is so democratic that resorting to illegal means of expressing dissent is never necessary, but because Malaysia is not a genuine democracy at all. Such a critic might argue that, if there was ever a time when civil disobedience was an appropriate strategy for addressing serious wrongs in Malaysian society, that time is gone. Though Malaysia has a constitution, periodic elections, opposition political parties, a few vocal NGOs, and other trappings of a functioning democracy, the critic will maintain that Malaysia has steadily become an authoritarian state in the past two decades and is now moving increasingly toward outright dictatorship.

Civil disobedience, as a mode of political address to fellow citizens, presupposes a broad public consensus around basic democratic principles. But the critic will maintain that Malaysia lacks such a consensus, and without it civil disobedients have no audience for their political message. They might think it sufficient to address members of the international community, but without domestic support it is likely that the civil disobedients will be crushed long before they rouse the conscience of the international community. And too many Malaysians are simply too willing to tolerate any injusticeespecially if someone else has to suffer itso long as they think it means avoiding the possibility of ethnic conflict. Though they insist that ordinary citizens should never break even the most outrageous laws, they are willing at the same time to condone rampant lawlessness by police and government officials.

Alternately, the critic might allow that Malaysia has something like the necessary consensus in place but insist that it is so enfeebled that no one can trust democratic principles will be honored by those in control of public institutions. The critic might contend that Malaysias judiciary, police, and mass media have been so utterly debased that Malaysian dissenters cannot expect that any message they would hope to convey by civil disobedience would be properly understood by the great majority of fellow citizens. And besides, the critic might continue, even if civil disobedients could adequately communicate their message to the public, due to the ever-diminishing integrity of Malaysias electoral process the public would be unable to offer an adequate response at the polls. With virtually all power in the country consolidated in the prime ministers person, the critic concludes, it would be madness to adopt civil disobedience as a strategy for effecting change in Malaysia. Now, says the critic, something more radicalcivil resistance or even militant actionis demanded instead.

As evidence for his claim that Malaysia is democratic in name only, the critic can point to a federal constitution that purports to guarantee fundamental rights but vitiates those rights by providing for nearly unlimited legislative restrictions, including the frequent denial of judicial review of executive actions. He can point to the countrys heavily censored and self-censoring mass media, which gleefully disseminate unsubstantiated allegations against government critics while studiously avoiding government failings. He can point to police officers who brazenly assault members of opposition political parties or NGOs on the streets with impunity, then arrest and beat them again in custody for trying to lodge official complaints. He can point to judges who admit into evidence confessions extracted under torture and who accept testimony from witnesses who proclaim readiness to commit perjury on instructions from superior officers. He can point to a government that would prefer to put the police on nationwide alert and to line the streets of the capital with water cannon, teargas, and M16-toting security personnel rather than grant demonstrators a measly permit. And the critic can point to a host of other abuses that have been documented by UN special rapporteurs, the International Bar Association and other international legal organizations, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Asian Network for Free Elections, the US State Department, various Malaysian and ASEAN NGOs, and independent media.

I am sympathetic to the critics concerns and I consider his objection that civil disobedience is not relevant to Malaysia one that should be taken very seriously. Even though the critic may be somewhat overstating his case by claiming that Malaysias democracy is purely cosmetic, given recent events it is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that Malaysian democracy is deeply dysfunctional in many respects. Fresh evidence of this seems to be provided almost daily. Nevertheless, I believe that civil disobedience can still play an important role in Malaysian society, because civil disobedience is not merely a stabilizing mechanism for robust democracies.

The critic may be correct: oppression and injustice in Malaysia may be so deeply rooted that civil disobedience is an irrational response. But there is reason to hope that the critic is mistaken. Along with signs that the Malaysian government is abandoning any pretext of democratic commitment, one also sees signs that ordinary Malaysians are starting to come together to address common concerns of justice, freedom, and good governance rather than focusing exclusively, as in the past, on issues that divide along ethnic or religious lines. Increasing numbers of Malaysians display genuine attachment to democratic ideals, even if many are still confused at times about the fuller implications of that attachment. There is reason to believe therefore that the practice of civil disobedience could help strengthen democracy in Malaysia.

The civil disobedient speaks to fellow citizens on the assumption that they are reasonable people and that they all share certain basic commitments about how they ought to regulate their life together, even though they might be in deep disagreement with one another about many other very important things. Addressing others as fellow citizens with shared commitments encourages them to see themselves as partners in a cooperative endeavor and to act accordingly.

Those who fear civil disobedience ought to consider the alternatives. If civil disobedients were to tolerate what they are convinced are intolerable wrongs rather than engage in public protest, they would be helping to undermine societys commitment to such values as equality and fairness. But if civil disobedients were instead to resist intolerable wrongs by violence or by simply ignoring laws they considered unjust, then they would be threatening the basis for mutual trust. In either case, the democratic character of society would be in jeopardy. As avenues for expressing dissent legally continue to be systematically foreclosed, conscientious Malaysians will have no choice but to seek redress of serious grievances by illegal means.

At present, Malaysians who dare engage in public dissent, legal or otherwise, face tremendous obstacles. Those who are convinced that the wrongs facing Malaysian society are too serious to be tolerated any longer may be sorely tempted to engage in private acts of resistance rather than face the dangers attendant upon civil disobedience in such an environment. This, despite the fact that their very unwillingness to accept the dangers would call into question the seriousness of the wrongs they seek to protest. However discouraging this may be, it should come as no surprise. The recalcitrance demonstrated by Malaysias leadership makes civil disobedience an extremely risky strategy for effecting reform and virtually guarantees that dissatisfaction with the status quo will remain bottled up until it inevitably reaches explosive levels. Malaysian authorities ought therefore to recognize the vital distinction between civil disobedients and common criminals. Even better would be to open up greater democratic space so that conscientious Malaysians would not have to risk becoming criminals in order to alert their fellow citizens of potential disasters toward which they see their society heading. The more authorities continue to foreclose legitimate avenues of dissent, the more they create circumstances in which ever larger segments of the population cannot seek redress for serious grievances except by socially destructive means.