Right way to right wrongs

CITIZEN demonstrations in the form of a public gathering of people in a rally or walking in a march are fast becoming synonymous with the democratic awakening in many countries, signifying the people’s fundamental right to freedom of assembly. They are regarded as a form of civil society activism where the masses are directly involved and the person in the street literally “walks the talk” in championing honourable causes such as fighting injustice and corruption, establishing equal rights or clean and fair elections.

In a public demonstration, protestation against societal wrongs – perceived or real – is collectively shared and the participants feel empowered by the group’s solidarity. They are seen to be proactively managing their own affairs instead of pass-ively leaving them in the hands of the authorities. When tens of thousands of people gather to jointly express an opinion or make a stand, it is hard not to see it as a living example of participatory democracy and egalitarianism.

Done in a controlled and decorous manner such as in a sit-in demonstration, it can bring out the best intentions and the most reasonable voices to articulate them. The danger is that in a street march, the sea of people in the moving current spreading across the city has the potential to throw up the most belligerent among the multitudes who will, intentionally or otherwise, drown the most reasonable voices.

Some see public demonstrations as “consensus decision-making”, or “direct action” where citizens make their choices in a decentralised way, not through the apparatus of the government administration. Instead of going through the prescribed route of lodging a police report on corrupt practices, or writing a letter of complaint to the erring department or agency, or addressing the issue privately with the member of parliament or local council, they choose to give vent to their frustrations in a public outcry. The clarion call is the citizen’s prerogative to assemble to protest and protect his rights in a democracy, irrespective of status or background.

The urgent manner of the protest is designed to apply pressure and get the authorities to right the wrongs. The expected outcome of citizen demands made en masse is immediate response from the authorities – surely the ideals of participatory democracy in an ideal world!

The real world however is far from ideal. Real people are not always reasonable and fair especially when emotions are aroused. Much as we trumpet the virtues of equality and egalitarianism, humans are not equal in their physical and emotional attributes. The socio-cultural, economic and educational environments are not equal in turning out the most moderate and reasonable citizens, endowed with the best attributes for an ideal civil society.

Even the best security features and tested methods of crowd control such as water cannons and tear gas fail the police when they are dealing with the emotions of the masses. Instead of seeing this as a way of protecting citizen safety in an unruly mob situation, angry people see the police as abusing their authority. To them, this is not the most civilised manner of dealing with people who are your fellow citizens.

While remaining true to our ideals, duties and responsibilities especially at the national level, there must be a concerted move towards creating physically and psychologically safer spaces for freedom of expression and speech among the citizenry. There must be room for reasoned and reasonable citizen participation in order for egalitarian processes to be procedurally and substantively mature. The idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic and should not be literally interpreted by civil society leaders including politicians. The statement that “You can’t create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre … The means and ends have to be the same” must be seriously considered.

To me personally, it was sad to see the rakyat take to the streets to do what they thought was right viz to right the wrongs in the nation’s election processes and procedures. The Bersih 3.0 modus operandi of street demonstrations has created unprecedented unrest and dissension among Malaysians. But the organisers must realise the danger when people are unruly and confused.

The purity of the argument that it’s the people’s right to express their displeasure and demand a hearing from an elected government is tainted by the fact that in expressing your right to ruffle the establishment, you are stepping on the right of others who might choose a different way.

So my question is: Are street demos really the way to go in pursuit of a mature democracy?

The writer keenly follows developments in politics, culture and education. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com