Ruminating the necessity of People Power and some thoughts on how to foster such a creation in Malaysia.
No human being should enslave another. In the 21st century, this much is clear. No one should rule over another, as a king would his subjects. That is, surprisingly, less clear, even into the 21st century.
All peoples are entitled to self-determination and self-governance. This is democracy’s ideology. It follows that power must belong to the people.
Because it is unworkable to have everyone directly involved in the job of governance, the people have no choice but to elect their representatives to carry out the tasks for them. In order that these duties can be effectively performed, the people again have no choice but to delegate and confer their power unto their representatives.
This is where the people’s miseries begin. The people’s representatives, having tasted the sweetness of power and having gained experience on how to manipulate the masses so as to remain in power, become the people’s trustees only in name. In practice, they turn into little kings and emperors. They acquire a delicate skill of pretending to protect the people’s interest, when in fact they are working only for their own.
Therefore, small groups of ordinary persons have to organize themselves, forming NGOs to battle these modern-day emperors. Different NGOs may be advocating different causes, but they all have something in common. They seek to return power to the people. They seek to make the people’s voice heard and heeded. They hope to bring true democracy back to the people.
But people power can meet with vastly different fates under different circumstances. Around the same time that the Velvet Revolution became successful, the Tiananmen peaceful demonstrations had a most distressing ending. There were a number of factors that had distinguished success from disaster, the most important of which, sadly, had nothing to do with the power of the masses at all. Rather, it depended on whether or not the ones at the very top of the power pyramid at the material times were willing to train their guns on their own unarmed civilians.
Nevertheless, in freeing from the shackles of autocratic rule, there is no substitute for people power. It is an empty dream to expect the international community to intervene and rescue a nation of suffering civilians, since international politics is defined by economics and self-interest, not altruism and human rights ideals.
Malaysia is no exception. Many Malaysian NGOs have over the years worked hard to alter the psychological relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. But that is just the first step. If Malaysians wish to move towards true democracy, where the people’s interest does take precedence over enrichment of the economic and political elite, we can rely on no one except our own power as a people.
People power, unavoidably, is a numbers game. This is particularly so at the earlier stages of inertia. In Malaysia today, there is an insufficient number of ordinary citizens who have awakened to the fact that we need to quickly reverse the direction we have been heading in the past decades. The pervasive corruption, scandalous wastage, continuing abuse of power, selective prosecutions and routine cover-up of scandals in our country are approaching a fatal level, matched only by the repetitious hypocrisy of the political rhetoric of pseudo-change.
Our only hope lies in securing the awakening of a much larger number of Malaysians of all walks of life. We have to act. We must induce and spread this awakening to all the corners of our land. And we have to do it real soon, or else the propaganda of falsehood will again win.
The next decade will be crucial for Malaysia, and the next 5 years even more so. This is because in some ways change has become harder since 3/08 (3rd March 2008), since our two-faced politicians have woken up to the fact of their new vulnerability. They will no doubt acquire and practise new tricks to hoodwink the people into thinking that they are bringing the changes that the people desire. They will seek to gain bigger support, and consolidate their power to such an extent that they will become unstoppable even by people power. If that happens, if we allow it to happen, the battle of Malaysian civil societies will be lost for a few more decades. If Malaysians are not vigilant, Malaysia can become a failed State.
In order to stimulate or bring about more widespread awakening among the Malaysian people, I propose the inclusion or intensification of the following urgent tasks in the agenda of Malaysian NGOs.
(1) A conscious shift of focus from the urban, well-educated population to the rural, less-informed groups. The message of reform will not reach wider audience if we simply continue to address only the converted.
(2) A shift in target necessitates changes in the language of human rights that we use to spread our message. The language I employ in this article, for instance, will likely be ineffective if the target readership is less acquainted with human rights issues.
(3) There is another dimension in which a shift in the language of human rights is desirable. Many Malaysians, unfortunately, are little moved by the horrors of certain forms of fundamental human rights violations, such as detention without trial or the ill treatment of suspected hardcore criminals. They will be more receptive to our plea, if we first deal with other issues of intimate concern to them. They will, for example, sit up and listen if we talk about economic rights, and explain in simple terms how corruption is affecting their livelihood, and why it will be much worse for their children if change is not brought about soon. The result of the recent survey by Merdeka Centre and Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) illustrates the need for much more educational work in this respect, because many Malaysians, while deploring corruption, actually think that corruption does not affect their everyday lives! Human Rights advocates should make more prominent use of the arguments of economic welfare.
(4) Many NGOs concentrate their resources and attention on tackling and seeking to change the decisions and actions of those in power. More often than not they are disappointed. Armed only with the force of argument, they are blocked and beaten back by those employing the argument of force. I suggest a re-think. I suggest to you that the root obstacle to change is in fact the attitude, motivation, decisions and actions not of the authorities, but of the masses. The following words of the Czech writer Milan Kundera serve as a useful reminder:
“We have got into the habit of putting the blame for everything on regimes. This enables us not to see that a regime only sets in motion mechanisms which already exist in ourselves.”
Therefore, I suggest that NGOs should put much more resources into changing the attitude, motivation, decisions and actions of ordinary people. That may appear to be a slower route to reform, but in fact it is a faster one. It might even be the only one.
(5) The foremost task now (in my view) is to put an end to political monopoly in our country. To use an analogy, in a surgery there is no point repairing the organs if the bleeding cannot be stopped. In the same way, no real improvement will come in our lives, if the bleeding that results from political monopoly is not stopped. To help put an end to political monopoly, NGOs and opinion shapers ought not to set an immediate standard of perfection for the substitutes to live up to at all times. Improvements begin with the creation of better choices, one step at a time. It does not start with an insistence on the ideal option right away. We will kill off all viable alternatives, if we speak as though we have room only for the perfect replacement.
(6) If in the foreseeable future Malaysia manages to put an end to political monopoly, we cannot expect things to turn better immediately. History shows that persons who have known nothing but power all their lives will use every means, proper or foul, to obstruct a peaceful transfer of power. State institutions whose might has for decades been geared towards serving the interest of the elite will not change overnight to serve the Rakyat. Instead, many who man these institutions will continue to secretly serve their old masters. Thus, to be able to implement effective changes will require careful planning way in advance. Otherwise, we might win the cultivation, but lose the harvest. For this purpose, I wish to plant the seed of the idea that a form of Truth & Reconciliation will be what Malaysia will need, if change does come. A truth & reconciliation scheme will go a long way in avoiding any prolonged suffering by a few innocent future generations, that might result from a long and often violent struggle relating to the transition of power. Its value (especially in ensuring that change comes much sooner rather than later, thereby bringing relief to millions) far outweighs any gain that contemporaneous accountability by a few crooks might bring.
Space does not permit me to elaborate on the above suggestions. I am aware that the last suggestion, in particular, is both complex and controversial, and calls for extensive debate. I hope civil societies will come together to brainstorm and map out strategies for the empowerment of the Malaysian people, with the view to bringing about effective change, and to ensuring that change once mandated by the people will not be brutally hijacked by the entrenched network of political thieves and robbers.
With globalisation and the cyberspace, the 21st century will see the rise of people power all over the world. It is up to us to make sure that Malaysia will not be left out. We have to count on ourselves to save ourselves. We need to convince all those around us to join us in this effort. We, each and every one of us, must go forth to spread the urgent message of the dire need for change. We must preach the doctrines and values of people power. We must engage in what I will call “secular proselytizing”!
[Loyarburok Editorial Note: This was Mr. Yeo Yang Poh's inaugural essay in a monthly Chinese magazine (
July 2009 January 2010* edition) called "Eye Asia", which has a bilingual section (English/Chinese). We would like to congratulate Mr. Yeo on being appointed as regular columnist for the magazine.*corrected on 20/2/2010.]