COMMENT Granted, many people are both angered and scared by the Najib Abdul Razak administration’s crackdown using the Sedition Act.
The victims are increasingly diverse, ranging from politicians, activists, students, a scholar, ulama, and a lawyer to overseas Malaysians. The ‘no-go zones’ underlined by the ‘Sedition Act’ are also expanding widely, from Race (ethnic) relations, Religion, Royalty, (PM’s wife) Rosmah Mansor to Regional Self-determination.
We are facing a predator of freedom in the form of the Sedition Act, which is no different from our ancestors million years ago facing predators of their lives in the form of wild beasts.
That is the so-called ‘fight or flight’ situation - anger prepares us to fight while fear drives us to flight. It’s this survival instinct that kept our ancestors alive and makes possible our existence.
To fight and win, and not resorting to flight, is like a herd of poor antelopes running for their lives from a charging lion. We must therefore analyse and understand our fear. Fear is what warns us of dangers but it might also be what leads to our slavery.
We are fearful because we have been counting up. It’s time we should start counting down!
The law of diminishing returns
Counting down means recognising that there is a maximum number of people that the Sedition Act can victimise before the villains find themselves at the losing end.
In other words, if a crackdown of dissidents is a good thing for an unpopular regime, too much of a good thing will nevertheless be bad for it.
Students of economics call such a phenomenon - whereby too much of a good thing may be bad - “the law of diminishing returns”.
In production, if other conditions remain the same, increasing the quantity of only a certain input (labour, capital or land) may increase the output faster and faster at the beginning.
Then the increase of output slows down with increase of every additional unit of that input. And, after some point, additional input will even lead to a decrease in the total output.
The Law of Diminishing Returns applies on the Sedition Act, too.
If the Act is a mad gunman taking hostage a group of unarmed civilians, then he has a limited number of bullets.
Once he runs out of bullets, he will be captured. To control his hostages, he must use his bullets rather prudently. Only then can he can effectively threaten the hostages to obey his orders.
The gunman’s power depends on the deadliness of the bullets, the willingness of the hostages to sacrifice themselves so that others may be free, and eventually, the relative size of the number of the bullets and the number of hostages.
If the gunman’s bullets are unlimited, or deadly enough to convince the civilians to give up resistance, he can potentially create a government.
Historically, the ruthlessness of Mongolians, Manchurians and Japanese in suppressing their conquered populations was a key factor how they could establish huge empires with relatively small numbers of troops.
Do I sound seditious in comparing tyranny with criminals? Oh, sorry, American political scientist Charles Tilly has completely convinced me that war-making and state-making are butorganised crime.
Najib's crackdown limit: 100-300?
Now, how many people can he Sedition Act dragnet catch before majority of the people think that the Najib administration is completely mad and becomes an intolerable tyranny?
Let’s go to the extreme. It surely cannot be more than 50 percent of the population plus one person.
Otherwise, we will have more people who are caught by the Sedition Act dragnet than those who are free. By then, being seditious would be a norm and not being seditious would be an anomaly.
The Najib administration cannot even crack down on just 1 percent of the population to warn the other 99 percent. Why? With a population of 30 million, 1 percent would mean 30,000.
Can you imagine how Malaysians and the world would react if 30,000 people are rounded up for sedition?
So, what is realistically the maximum number of Sedition Act victims? I will put it at most 300, but more likely 100-150.
In 1987, the government nabbed 106 dissidents in the notorious Operasi Lalang.
The political climate in 1980s was much more different - the world then had the Cold War but not cool social media, and Malaysia was arguably much more divided on ethnic lines, hence authoritarianism was much more legitimate.
This means, the Dr Mahathir Mohamad administration could potentially detain much more than 106 - perhaps thousands - before exhausting its own legitimacy.
However, it did not has to because the arrest of 106 successfully drove Malaysians into fear and subjugation (although one may argue that the Operasi Lalang may have contributed to the electoral revolt against BN in 1990, almost ending Mahathir’s rule.)
Given today’s world and Najib’s weak leadership, he can hardly afford an arrest of 106 without being stripped of any remaining pretense as a reformist or a moderate, both domestically and internationally.
A gigantic rally like the much awaited Bersih 4.0 by some can easily be triggered. And all the fiascos at the side of Pakatan Rakyat would look harmless hiccups.
Give the victims bullet-proof vests
But exactly how many is too many depends on amongst others, two questions: how much harm the Sedition Act can cause; and, how strongly the Sedition Act is hated.
And these two are actually inter-related: if the price is less, more people can afford to be brave. On the contrary, if the price is high, then few will dare to bite the bullets.
In that sense, the image of Ali Abdul Jalil smiling broadly when being handcuffed and accompanied by a stern-looking policeman is highly seditious.
Smiling Ali was so at ease that he looked like the victor in the game, and police the loser. Now, when you don’t fear a bad law, a bad law is rendered a sheet of paper.
The prosecution should really charge him for sedition. Legally speaking, ‘seditious tendency’ is committed when you incite hatred towards the political system.
In Ali’s (left) smile, don’t you feel his contempt for the system and don’t you hate the system? At least I do. Ali is so inspiring for all trouble-makers in this country. After all, who say you can only incite hatred by cursing “celaka” like (Penang assemblyperson) RSN Rayer and not smiling charmingly like Ali?
More than law scholar Azmi Sharom, Smiling Ali is therefore indeed the most powerful poster boy of the Gerakan Mansuhkan Akta Hasutan (GHAH - in my humble opinion, please don’t pronounce it in a mouthful as G.H.A.H., but forcefully as GHARRGH!)
Slapped with eight counts of charges under the Sedition Act, Smiling Ali even refused to be bailed out.
We however shouldn’t expect others to be as brave as Ali. What we should work towards is building a net of legal, financial and social support for the Sedition Act victims and their families, so that everyone arrested and charged under the Sedition Act can smile as seditiously as Ali!
Such a net of support would be like a bullet-proof vest for the victims-to-be of the gunman. When bullets cannot kill you, then every bullet fired at you should be celebrated rather than feared.
This is what I mean by “counting down” rather than "counting up". We must psychologically deny Bukit Aman any joy of crackdown and in fact turn the table around.
Every additional person caught by the Sedition Act dragnet should be an alarm to the IGP and his political masters that their bullets are depleting. They should have nightmares, not us.
These bullet-proof vests of course won’t be cheap. Not only we need to have enough lawyers to represent on the pro-bono basis potentially 100-300 victims, and organise countless vigils, we also need to prepare a big sum of money as bail money.
If the bail money ruled for another victim Safwan Anang, RM 15,000, is made the benchmark, then the anti-Sedition Act movement should enlist enough “sponsors” to be ready with some RM 1.5 to RM 4.5 million.
RM1.5 million to RM4.5 million is certainly not a small amount, but won’t it be very cheap if that is the price for Malaysia’s real independence?
Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!
WONG CHIN HUAT earned his PhD from the University of Essex with a thesis on the electoral system and party system in peninsular Malaysia. A fellow at the Penang Institute, he and his colleagues work on the 1946 question of nation-building and multiculturalism.