Backing the call for free and fair elections, Bishop Paul Tan however urges top political leaders to refrain from angry rhetoric and inflammatory attacks.
Speaking to FMT, Bishop Paul Tan said he “applauded the goal” of Bersih that the upcoming election be free and fairly conducted and that the movement stayed free of political interference.
He also urged Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat leaders to refrain from intemperate rhetoric as their respective supporters seemed only too eager to take matters to outrageous excess.
The 72-year-old head of the Catholic Church in the Malacca-Johor diocese also expressed deep concern at the tenor of recent incidents that had marred the national political scene.
“We understand that the approaching general election is a critical one but that is no excuse for contestants to take leave of their senses and otherwise compose ourselves like this is a fight unto death,” he said.
Tan warned that Malaysia’s justified reputation for peaceful living among her 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 protest 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.
“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 added.
Tan, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, declined to be specific, saying that it would not be right for him to do so.
“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,” he said.
‘Mistaken rather than malignant’
However, the bishop emphasised on the critical founts of civil conduct, whose deportment, he said, was crucial to the staging of a 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 added.
Tan also pointed out that the underlying premise of democratic discourse was the presumption that one’s opponent was mistaken rather than malignant.
“This is what makes for the civility of democratic exchange.
“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,” he said.
Reiterating his appeal that top political leaders refrain from intemperate attacks and inflammatory rhetoric, the bishop said:
“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.”
Ambiga: It means a lot to us
Meanwhile, Bersih co-chairperson S Ambiga expressed gratitude for the bishop’s endorsement.
“I welcome the remarks of Bishop Paul, an intellectual who speaks without fear or favour. His advice is timely and his wisdom faultless.
“That he applauds Bersih’s goal means a lot to us,” she told FMT.
The Bersih protest which was initiated as a peaceful gathering turned violent when the protesters breached the barricades at Dataran Merdeka, leading the police to fire tear gas and water cannons.
Until late in the evening, the city centre was enveloped in chaos as protesters clashed with the police, resulting in many being injured.
In the ensuing blame game, the authorities accused the opposition of deliberately instigating violence in order to recreate an Arab spring here with the aim of toppling the government.
The opposition and Bersih, however, alleged that it was the police which had used excessive violence.
Speaking in Washington yesterday, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said Bersih was hijacked by certain quarters to create the perception of instability in the country.
While the government had set up an independent panel to probe the allegation of police brutality during the protest, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein issued a stern warning that all those responsible would be brought to justice.
Critics had constantly accused BN of indulging in electoral fraud and the Election Commission of abetting the ruling coalition.
But BN leaders argued that the opposition’s electoral gains in the 2008 polls was testimony to the independence of the electoral process.