Catholic Bishop Dr Paul Tan Chee Ing urged the top leaders of competing parties at the forthcoming general election to refrain from “intemperate rhetoric because supporters and followers seem only too eager to take matters to outrageous excess.”
Speaking to Malaysiakini, the head of the Catholic Church in the Melaka-Johor diocese said he was deeply concerned at the tenor of recent incidents that have marred the national political scene.
“We understand that the approaching general election is a critical one in our country’s history, but that is no excuse for the contestants to take leave of their senses and otherwise compose ourselves like this is a fight unto death,” said the bishop who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
The Jesuit-trained prelate said Malaysians’ justified reputation for peaceful living among its diverse citizens was in danger of “disruptions by a manipulative and malign few adept at covering their trails after they have committed their mischief.”
“Random evaluation of eyewitness accounts of incidents at the Bersih 3.0 protest on April 28 and the subsequent behaviour of people aligned to one or the other side of the national argument are enough to suggest the gravity of the responsibility that resides with the principal leaders of the competing coalitions,” said Bishop Paul Tan.
“Unless these leaders refrain from stridency and intemperance in their rhetoric, supporters and followers would take matters beyond the bounds of what is considered permissible conduct,” he asserted.
Bishop Paul Tan declined to be specific “for that would tip my hand as to whose conduct I’m castigating, which I rather not do because as a Christian religious leader I must avoid being a partisan in political battles.”
However, he said, he applauded the goal of polls reform advocacy group Bersih that the upcoming election be free and fairly conducted and that the movement stayed free of political interference.
Peaceful general election
Those considerations apart, the prelate addressed himself to what he saw as the critical founts of civil conduct whose deportment he said was crucial to the staging of peaceful general election.
“I will confine myself to a general appeal to the principal political leaders to refrain from intemperate attacks because rabid supporters would then take matters to outrageous excess,” he said.
Bishop Paul Tan said the underlying premise of democratic discourse is the presumption that one’s opponent is mistaken rather than malignant.
“This is what makes for the civility of democratic exchange,” he opined.
“But when one attributes evil intentions and malign motives to one’s opponents, the discourse descends to intemperance and outrage pretty quickly and supporters take the cue and make matters worse,” argued Bishop Paul Tan.
“Hence my appeal to the principals that they refrain from intemperate attacks and inflammatory rhetoric because it appears that either side cannot abide the notion of defeat, which is contrary to the ethos of democratic combat which accepts that the winner takes power peacefully and the loser is unmolested unless he or she has plainly broken the laws,” said Bishop Paul Tan.