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Blind obedience to the state

June 20, 2012

Although at some points, government may express the will of the majority but we need to be mindful that it may also express nothing more than the will of elite politicians.


By Khoo Ying Hooi

During his recent address at the annual Razak Lecture Series organized by the Razak School of Government, Raja Nazrin says that Malaysians are increasingly polarized and he blames civil society groups, referring to the Bersih 3.0 rally, for contributing to this scenario.

I quote, “Civil society is rapidly becoming uncivil, and the spirit of give and take is being replaced with the spirit of take and take.”

His statement reminds me to the influential essay written by Henry David Thoreau in 1849.

The essay has been variously titled but it is most often referred to simple as “On Civil Disobedience.”

Civil disobedience is a form of civil resistance. It is also a form of protest. However the acts of civil disobedience must be distinguished from typical cases of crime and acts of civil rebellion.

Thoreau’s political theories were not well known during his own time. Most of the time, he presented his ideas as lectures to small audiences or as articles in limited-circulation periodicals.

In 1890, Henry Salt published a collection of Thoreau’s political essays, including “On Civil Disobedience.”

Since then, Thoreau’s essay has influenced many prominent figures for instance, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Mahatma Gandhi at that time was still a young lawyer in South Africa protesting the unfair government treatment to the immigrant workers from India.

From Thoreau, Gandhi found the techniques he subsequently used in the struggle for Indian independence.

“On Civil Disobedience” is basically an essay that analyaes the individual’s relationship to the state. It concentrates on why a person remains obedient to the governmental law although he or she believes it to be prejudiced.

Tax rebel

The essay was in fact Thoreau’s personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law.

Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel because he despised slavery and that tax revenues contributed to the support of it. He declined to pay the poll tax that violated his conscience and so, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed.

He was released the next day after his relatives settled the “debt”; nevertheless he was very much irritated of that decision.

So how, then, did Thoreau manage to influence such political giants?

It is his refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico that literally captured many hearts.

He asserted in his essay, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resigns his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

If a man chose to be an agent of injustice, then Thoreau insisted on confronting him with the fact that he was making an option. This is the key to Thoreau’s political philosophy. The individual is the final judge of right and wrong.

Thoreau also questioned that if the government is deemed as the voice of the people, shouldn’t that voice be considered?

Although at some points, government may express the will of the majority but we need to be mindful that it may also express nothing more than the will of elite politicians.

It is because as Thoreau said, even a good form of government is “liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”

Consequences of disobedience

The reasons are pretty obvious. The people who believe they need a government are willing to accept an imperfect one.

Such people, Thoreau argued, accept government as a “necessary evil.” Some may support government out of self-interest, while others obey simply because they fear the consequences of disobedience.

Historically, whether we realize it or the other way, civil disobedience has been important to this country’s political development, alerting the majority to injustices and unwise policies.

Malaysia has long been apprehended of as located somewhere between the grey zone of democracy and authoritarianism.

Nowadays, civil society has become a legitimate path for social and political participation and for influencing policy formation and public opinion.

Alerts of change have started to come into sight during the 1998 Reformasi movement. The contribution that Malaysia’s nascent civil society made to the anti-authoritarian struggles is widely recognised today, not only locally but also internationally.

In sum, it would be unwise if the government of the day is still reluctant to view the civil society as part of their ‘survival kit’.

Without doubt, the state-civil society relation is essential for democracy. Without it, the common good of the people will be directly affected.

The writer is an academic member of staff at University Malaya. She is also a PhD candidate at the University Putra Malaysia. Her current research focuses on the civil society and social movement in Malaysia. She can be contacted at [email protected].


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