The said act (Sources: online blog)
The said act (Sources: online blog)

This article is a value judgment on the harms of lowering a flag bearing the picture of our Prime Minister. This act was conducted by Adam Adli, a UPSI student, during a rally organized by various student movements such as BEBAS and SMM a few days ago.

“Flag-gate”, as which the incident is popularly known, has gained much controversy since then. This is amplified by prominent members of the ruling coalition demanding an apology from the organizers. The position of these student movements is clear – they defend and stand in solidarity with Mr Adam, who has been threatened and harassed by people who disagree with his actions.

This article seeks to condemn Mr Adam’s action and also present an opinion. An opinion where student movements should eschew from controversies and distance themselves from individuals who act on emotional and attention-seeking behaviour, rather than being strategic about forwarding a cause.

The writer concedes that hitherto, he has never been to a protest. A very apathetic person actually (single, too). However, the writer’s belief in student emancipation and the abolition of AUKU (Akta Universiti dan Kolej Universiti) is unshakeable. As such, he is a stakeholder of whatever action these movements seek to pursue.

The writer firmly believes that such provocative acts would lead to a regression in regards to the objective of student liberation (freeing ourselves from being prohibited in participating in politically-related activities).

To understand why, we must look at the current political climate. The context and position on student liberation is as ambivalent as ever. The Court of Appeal in a recent landmark case declared S.15 (5) of AUKU – the clause which prohibits students from joining politics – as unconstitutional. While this is a cause for celebration, it must be noted that government subsequently appealed this decision to the Federal Court. Hence, we’re back to square one until an exact ruling is affirmed.

What makes this worse is that the Court of Appeal decision isn’t a unanimous decision, but a 2-1 split. Though the writer disagrees with the reasoning given by the contrarian, Mr Lau Hop Bing, his dissenting judgment gives moral legitimacy to the claims of those who wish to retain the status quo.

The circumstances are further complicated as the government made half-hearted overtures on reforming and amending the AUKU. We had all kinds of promises being shoved down our throats. From allowing students above 21 years old to join politics, to prohibiting political activities within the boundaries of campuses, the situasi is murky and bleak. The establishment is disingenuous about conferring student freedom and only goes on a platform of reform for political mileage.

What we have is a government with a shifty stance on allowing student participation in politics.

How does lowering the flag of Mr Najib fit in? Personally, the writer has no qualms with the said act. He is, however, against personalised politics and the glorification of individuals.

The problem lies with perception. The act of lowering a flag can be interpreted as a provocative one – a symbol of aggression and assertiveness.

Society would share a similar line of thought, especially the one we live in, which still retains elements of feudalism and venerates the notion of social status, (we salute our YBs, throw lavish functions for VIPs, kissing of hands, placing high importance on titles) this act would only be misconstrued as an anti-establishment act. Is this a bad thing?

Yes, it is. It validates the imagery that students tend to be emotionally charged and unable to control themselves, thus confirming the stereotype of hot-blooded youths. This is something the government propagates and tries to internalize in us. The stereotype that youths are anti-establishment and prone to be exploited (diperkudakan) would be solidified. What is more, they would tend to use the slippery-slope argument to predict what students would do if given “unbridled freedom” (go on riots, burn the Malaysian flag, etc).

In this aspect, it appears that the government is using the opportunity to portray itself as a paternal figure where the ban on students joining politics would be seen as a tool for the government to protect students from themselves and their impulsive actions.

Using various state apparatus such as the media and lackeys to blow the issue out of proportion, the government is able to paint a picture of students being ‘irrational youths’ to manufacture the consent of the silent majority to acquiesce to the status quo.

This is a harm which reverses all previous efforts to champion student emancipation from the cold fingers of state control. Giving the government intellectual capital and evidence of student protests getting out of hand is harmful not only for students, but also for internal reformers within the establishment.

As we have seen, ultraconservatives, hellbent on maintaining status quo and absolute control on the political lives of students, have pushed the blame on reform-minded individuals like Saifuddin Abdullah, citing that his support for student freedom contributed to the denigration of students’ respect towards the Prime Minister.

The narrative employed by hardliners, such as “this is what he got the students to do and therefore, should resign” would gain nods within an already conservative power structure. Provocative acts such as this are not granting internal reformers any favour.

A case to support my argument is to look at none other than the genesis of the AUKU. This act was passed and institutionalised after various student riots, like those for the peasants in Baling, Kedah, protests in ITM etc. Society accepted this statute, as they felt that a never-ending spree of riots would be viewed negatively since it only sought to antagonize moderates and fence-sitters on student political freedom.

The writer (a shameless armchair activist) advocates protests and dissent through less provocative and flamboyant means. Go for a peaceful assembly, write articles, engage with your MP and host forums. Just don’t go doing an act which may be perceived as aggressive.

One might then ask, isn’t a peaceful assembly provocative? The answer would be no. If done correctly and with the genuine intention to voice out concerns and be heard, and if participants are mature and responsible enough in executing the right to assemble, there’s no reason for it to be considered so.

The writer believes that minority groups who hold philosophies differing with the majority’s must engage in non-confrontational means to achieve an end goal. Acts such as these can be distorted by some to be a confrontational act, a major turnoff for the average man.

This is why I believe that the ethnocentric group, the apparently appealing Perkasa, fashioned as protectors of the Malays by window-dressing themselves with gangster-like rhetoric, would fade out as its confrontational style is not appealing to the middle-class individual. (Malaysia is producing more and more middle-class citizens annually, and these are beginning to hold increasingly progressive outlooks regarding socio-political issues.)

Perception management is key in convincing society that students deserve political emancipation. Divorce yourself from emotionally-charged or uncouth-sounding acts. Be rational, pleasing, persuasive, reasonable and approachable. Being a radical is awesome, but appearing as an angry one is just a turnoff, which won’t advance the cause for freedom.

2 replies on “The Perils of Lowering a Flag”

  1. I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous. When has peaceful protest NOT been provocative? The father of non violence movements, Mohandas Ghandi explicitly stated 'our resistance must be active and provocative'. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, back in the day, is on record as having used a strategy of provoking as much of a crackdown as possible from the authorities specifically to make life worse for blacks in hopes of getting more recruits and more power. Now you may agree or disagree with their methods, but they were clearly successful at what they did, and it seems to me ludicrous for you to suggest that peaceful assembly isn't inherently provocative. If it wasn't, it would not be as successful a weapon as it is today. I suggest you read 'Rules for Radicals' by Saul Alinsky if you wish to learn about how to affect constructive social change.

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