Remembering Dr Ismail’s admonition

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COMMENT There was an eerie echo to Armed Forces chief Zulkifeli Mohd Zin's statement yesterday.

It said the military will intervene only if the government declares a state of emergency from presumed disturbances by the Bersih 4 march planned for this weekend that has already had to run a gauntlet of obstacles to its staging, including threats of violence from vigilantes.

There was no cause for the forces chief’s statement as the two Bersih marches held since the first on Nov 10, 2007 were predominantly peaceful.

What disturbances there were stemmed mainly from strong-arm methods deployed against the marchers more than the latter’s unruliness.

This weekend’s march is set to be the fourth in the series aimed at the restoration of the chief prop for democratic governance, namely clean and fair polls.

The forces’ chief's warning caused memory to harken back to an episode during the May 13, 1969 race riots.

The riots, long thought to have been a spontaneous conflagration but in recent times disputed as engineered rather than involuntary, occasioned great sorrow in then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

The then forces’ commander asked a distraught Tunku for the green light to restore order, after which power would be returned to the civil authority.

The Tunku, who was loath to accept that the disturbances could occur on his prime ministerial watch which he had said was the happiest in the world, turned to then home minister Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman ( photo ) for advice.

“If you give them the power, forget about getting it back,” was Ismail’s sage admonition.

By the late 1960s, the future in post-colonial Asia and Africa was cloudy from the incineration of hopes that freedom from colonial rule would usher in a new dispensation for the continents’ teeming, poverty-stricken masses.

Much of that disappointment stemmed from resort to military rule in countries where democratic contestation had descended into despotism by men in jackboots.

Ismail had already seen this in Myanmar (Burma) in 1962 and Algeria in 1965; hence his advice to the Tunku that once the men in military fatigues saunter in, the people in civvies will be bundled out for good.

Maynmar’s and Algeria's experiences since the rise of military strongmen, General Ne Win and Colonel Houari Boumedienne respectively, have now shown Ismail’s advice to have been prescient.

No call to sound the alarums

There was no call for current Forces' supremo, Zulkifeli, to sound the alarums about the Bersih march because of the peaceful past history of the marches.

Even as he issued it, the threat from a vigilante group that they would act against presumed violence from Bersih marchers was retracted , courtesy of advice from the police that they would take care of things and that they needed no help on that score.

There must have been an audible sigh of relief from Bersih, organisers of three earlier - and predominantly pacific - editions of marches in Kuala Lumpur that were no more than a flaunting of ‘people’s power’ which is the last resort in a democracy that's steadily mutating into dictatorship under Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

Demonstrations of ‘people’s power’ in other parts of South-East Asia in recent decades have upended despots and though their replacements were not of the desired quality, the sequels did not subtract from the efficacy of this weapon of last resort as a game-changer.

Predictably, Najib and his cohort are worried about what the weekend’s march would bring.

Fortunately, there is a limit to their capacity to co-opt power brokers to their side though forces chief Zulkifeli’s statement served as a disconcerting reminder that like the police force, the military has also been press-ganged into becoming an uniformed wing of our political set-up.

It appears that no institution of state in Malaysia is exempt from imperial creep: the steady erosion of the independence of state institutions that should properly be free of the whims of the political authority.

A parliamentary democracy subsists on clear lines of demarcation between state institutions and ruling politicians, delineating their separate writs.

A keen feel for this demarcation led Ismail Abdul Rahman to give prescient advice to the Malaysia’s founding premier at a critical moment in our nation's history.

Would that we have more Ismail Abdul Rahmans rather than Ne Win and Boumedienne prototypes.


TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for more than four decades. A sobering discovery has been that those who protest the loudest tend to replicate the faults they revile in others.



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