Fadiah Nadwa Fikri
Artikel versi Bahasa Melayu boleh didapati di sini.
Upon his release from prison, former opposition leader and prime minister in waiting Anwar Ibrahim shared his thoughts on his winding political journey and went on to say something that was exceptionally profound – that the value of freedom was the lesson he learned from prison life. Three years flew by. A man’s liberty was taken away and shackled to prison walls. To spectators of this political episode, Anwar’s incarceration felt like a long absence. In his absence, ordinary Malaysians continued to deal with their everyday struggles amidst the mundane and intolerable suffocating reality. Some struggled to navigate and make sense of the meaning of freedom, having been forced to live in a bigger prison surrounded by impenetrable walls invisible to many.
When May 9 happened, the country went into immense shock. To witness the fall of an authoritarian government which had been clinging on to power for 61 years was not an impossibility. It is undeniable that the change of government enabled, among others, the release of the former opposition leader. The picture of Anwar, swarmed by a sea of journalists, held tightly in his family’s arms, finally free from imprisonment was a sight to behold. The celebration continued late in the night, where thousands of supporters assembled at Padang Timur to listen to his freedom speech.
While the majority of Malaysians were still immersed in the indescribable euphoria, trying to wrap their minds around the change and what it meant for the country, the internal power struggle among the political elite started to rear its ugly head. Realizing how fragile the transition was, some started to question the drama that was unveiling before the nation. There were voices who were quick to tell critics to bite their tongues and have faith in people occupying positions of power.
The terrain on which this internal power struggle was taking place was clearly off limits to ordinary people – including the very people who elected those who are now at the helm of the government. This is the harsh reality associated with representative democracy – a reality we rarely talk about and examine, in which political participation is mainly confined to the ballot box whose final outcome would subsequently be handed over to the ruling elite. In defence of this reality, people are often told to wait another five years if they wish to change the government. Who has the luxury to wait another five years? This question must not be left unanswered.
Any attempt to break the fortress built around this existing system in order to democratize the space for people to assert their political existence is often met with harsh criticism and rebuke. As a result, the power to shape the future and direction of the country remains in the hands of the privileged few, thus further alienating the voices of the many, in particular the marginalized. Genuine democracy which seeks to place people at its heart therefore remains out of reach.
The unending internal power struggle reached a whole new level when the picture of Anwar, bending down, kissing the hand of the Sultan of Johor emerged on the internet. Given the prime minister’s strained relationship with the monarchy, there are no prizes for guessing why the prime minister in waiting did what he did. What is disquieting about the act captured in the picture is the indefensible feudal culture it’s embodying and the catastrophic consequences it’s transmitting.
It bears reminding that to most of the rest of the world, monarchy was rendered obsolete a long time ago. History has shown that the absurdities on which the institution was built can no longer be tolerated, defended, and justified. To situate a class of people above others by virtue of their aristocratic birth could not be more revolting a notion – a notion that stands in contradiction to the concept of freedom and human dignity.
As people constantly rise to reclaim the meaning of freedom and human dignity in a world that is plagued with institutional dehumanization, this indefensible notion of subjugation raises a number of questions which demand answers. Why do people who bleed red just like everyone whose unconditional submission is forced upon deserve such privilege? Why do people who perpetually live off the backs of those who are struggling to survive and live a dignified life deserve god-like treatment and adoration? Why are people who are unilaterally endowed with immense power and wealth extracted from people they subjugate immune from accountability?
The answers to these questions lead us to one inevitable conclusion: not only is the monarchy anti-democratic, it is also a direct assault on our very dignity which is inherent to our existence as human beings. While proponents of this feudal relic would argue that the monarchy as it exists today is nothing but a neutral constitutional adornment, the fact however demonstrates the contrary. One must look beyond what is written in the Constitution in order to understand the politics this institution practices, whose interest it truly represents, and whose side it is on.
One month before the recent general elections, the Johor crown prince, popularly known as TMJ, unreservedly told the whole nation not to bring down the government – the government which had been ruling the country with an iron fist for 61 years. The crown prince’s act of uttering these words shortly before the elections, while many people were engulfed in simmering anger, struggling to escape the oppressive situations they had been subjected to for so long, was indeed a calculated move.
The act was clearly executed out of fear of the unknown – fear of losing the privilege and power accorded to the monarchy by the oppressive government who was complicit in subjugating the people, should a change of government become a reality. This particular event which is in no way an anomaly is proof that the institution has never been neutral. It’s as clear as day that the side of the people is the side it has never been on. As for believers of this archaic institution who contend that it is a symbol of unity, standing on the side of the oppressor while many are denied the right to good life in a country that is structured by domination, inequality, and exploitation only speaks of one kind of unity: unity in oppression.
To be free does not and cannot mean to only be free from the visible concrete prison walls in our midst. Freedom must mean that we are collectively free from invisible walls that have long been erected to rob us of our dignity. To be free is to persistently and collectively stand up against and resist institutional dehumanization in all its forms. As Judith Butler puts it:
“Indeed, if resistance is to bring about a new way of life, a more liveable life that opposes the differential distribution of precarity, then acts of resistance will say no to one way of life at the same time that they say yes to another. For this purpose, we must reconsider for our times the performative consequences of concerted action in the Arendtian sense. Yet, in my view, the concerted action that characterizes resistance is sometimes found in the verbal speech act or the heroic fight, but it is also found in those bodily gestures of refusal, silence, movement, refusing to move, that characterize those movements that enact democratic principles of equality and economic principles of interdependency in the very action by which they call for a new way of life more radically democratic and more substantially interdependent.”