The last thing we want to see is a personality cult built around the prime minister.
It must come as a shock that stomping on the photograph of the prime minister is an act of sedition. What is sedition? Sedition is using “words or actions that are intended to encourage people to oppose a government”. A young girl stepped on the photograph of the prime minister and the police acted swiftly. She was promptly handcuffed when she surrended at a police station. She is out on bail and will most likely be charged under the Sedition Act. It is hard to believe that her act would encourage people to oppose the government. A revolt erupts when a government becomes unpopular because of corruption and abuse of power. A political leader is toppled because of his own doing and not because the people spat on his portrait and incited an uprising.
The Merdeka eve “affair” was painted as an outrageous act that got the whole nation disgusted. The official storyline – that all those who left their footprints on the “sacred” photograph were out to fan the flame of hatred against the political establishment – will not sell. The whole nation was not grieving for the “ill-treated” leader but went on its business as usual. People did not pour out onto the streets to man the barricade against the young horde. These so-called sacrilegious acts simply do not carry enough weight to merit public outpouring of condemnation.
What motive drove the incensed official crowd to such frenzy of righteous anger? One cannot help but come to the conclusion that the government of the day is slipping down the treacherous political slope and must find a way to regain so much lost ground. That midnight “tap dance” gave it just the right ammunition to whip up a tempest. As if on cue, all the prime minister’s men and all the sympathetic cohorts raised the red flag: the country is under mortal threat from a band of stomping teenagers intent on inciting hatred against the government. Defend the government. Are the people listening?
The picture of the handcuffed teenager only created an uproar and a backlash. Public sympathy surely did not lay with the crumpled photograph on the ground. People were more aghast than anything else at the heavy-handed treatment of the youth. The police are making out a case against all those who dared defile the “sacred” photograph, but the end result will not make the country a better place. If the government wants to teach the young generation to respect a political figure, it cannot be done using the loathsome tools of intimidation and coercion.
Cult of personality
It appears that the Sedition Act has become a useful weapon to crack down on all manner of dissent and indirectly protect the prime minister. In the short term, it may ensure his political survival but in the long run, it will antagonise the people. Sure, the office of prime minister is important and must be duly recognised. What is at issue is the person who occupies the seat. He can bring disrepute to his office because of all the bad things he can do to the country. In which case, he can become an object of derision and hate. In many countries, this resentment would boil over into street protests and the portraits and statues of the prime minister or president would be defiled. No harsh laws can save a leader who loses the trust of his people.
To use draconian laws on the people merely to shield a leader is not a good way to keep his political career intact. A politician who holds the highest office in the land is a public figure who must accept all the risks that go with it. At times he will be praised sky high and even worshipped like a deity. At other times, he will be scorned and treated like dirt. In extreme cases, he will be driven out of office and his person violated. History is replete with the fall of disgraced leaders.
The danger in Malaysia is to witness the birth of a cult of personality. There are already disturbing signs that the country is moving towards this direction, with the mass media and propaganda being employed to portray an idealised image of the prime minister through unstinting flattery and praise.
Soon the masses will be forced to venerate him. Today, you cannot trample on his picture. Tomorrow, all citizens must bow down when passing by a gigantic portrait of the Dear Leader. All those who resist will disappear. But this is Malaysia. This is a democracy and people are free to extol or censure their prime minister.