Of late, the Janji Demokrasi Merdeka countdown has drawn attention for the wrong reasons. Why did a group of youths stomp on and moon the picture of the Prime Minister and what should be done?
IS our Malaysian culture known for its sopan santun (courtesy) changing for the worse?
Since when is it okay to stomp on and moon the picture of the country's leader? Isn't this so kurang ajar (ill bred) and biadap (rude)? Is this even a Malaysian thing to do? Or are we over-reacting?
On the eve of Merdeka Day, a group of NGOs (closely aligned to Bersih) organised a Janji Demokrasi countdown at Dataran Merdeka to celebrate the country's independence and tens of thousands showed up. Generally, it was felt that the hour-long gathering went on peacefully.
It was only later that news emerged about a small group of youths stomping on pictures of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor and Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof, and showing their butts. Some even carried the Sang Saka Malaya flag as a so-called alternative to the “Malaysian” flag.
Following public outcry, the police decided to act and put up photos of the 11 alleged offenders, asking them to come forward. After that, a number came forward while the others who didn't were picked up by the police. A few others are still holding out.
Part-time model 19-year old Ong Sing Yee turned herself in at the Johor Baru police station, was handcuffed and taken to the Dang Wangi police station for questioning. She has since made a public apology for stepping on the PM's picture, saying she got carried away and “followed others”.
Another 19-year-old male student studying Creative Multimedia at Cybernetics International College has been expelled with no chance to appeal for his indecent act of exposing his buttocks at the picture of the Prime Minister. The student's father, expressing remorse over his son's behaviour, has apologised and wants to meet Najib to personally say sorry.
The police are looking into charging the 11 under the Sedition Act and the Penal Code.
But critics have questioned why the police have been so quick to act on this matter but slow when it comes to similar offensive acts being committed against opposition leaders and others.
They point out that the police did not act when Perkasa stepped on and burnt photographs of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and performed a mock funeral for him.
And they didn't act either when a group of ex-servicemen did butt-exercises in front of Bersih 2.0 co-chairman Datuk S. Ambiga's house, defaced and tore up her picture as well as performed “funeral” rites.
These questions are not only with regards to the opposition.
In 2008, Bukit Bendera Umno chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail got into a spat with then Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon (Gerakan), and called non-Malays “immigrants” who do not deserve equal rights. One of his supporters even smashed a framed picture of Dr Koh and tore it up. The police didn't take action either and the matter was dealt with instead at party and Barisan Nasional level. Ahmad Ismail was subsequently suspended from Umno for three years.
So why the difference?
Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek says such actions shouldn't be tolerated, regardless of whether it is done to a Barisan or opposition leader.
“We shouldn't tolerate it being done to anyone at all, but it is worse when this happens on Merdeka Day, a sacred day in Malaysian history, in a sacred place like Dataran Merdeka. It is very unbecoming.”
Drawing a parallel, he says if an offence is committed inside a mosque, temple or church, the effect is different than if it is done outside it.
“We should be mature. To say it is no big deal is wrong. How would you feel if the picture of your father or mother is torn up and stomped on? It is very hurtful,” he adds.
He says people in the crowd should have tegur (admonished) these youths and said something.
“Does democracy and freedom mean the freedom to do such a thing? Civilised societies don't do this,” he says, adding that people in even the most developed of countries which promote human rights and democracy do not express themselves in such a manner.
“Such things are not tolerated anywhere in the world,” he says.
For Shabery, the Janji Demokrasi organisers should take full responsibility over what happened and make a public apology because the incident is shameful, and reflects badly on them and national laureate Datuk A. Samad Said who was at the countdown.
Shabery says when his ministry organised the recent 1 Juta Belia event and the K- Pop groups shocked Malaysians with their racy outfits during their performance, and when a car hit a spectator during the drag race event, he made a public apology even though both incidents were beyond his control. But as minister and organiser, he took full responsibility for what happened, he said. He believes the same applies with a football match if turns unruly, it is the organiser who has to take responsibility.
“The Janji Demokrasi organisers should express displeasure at what happened because it embarrasses them and tell their supporters to practise restraint.
“They think the bigger the crowd the better it is, but they must remember too that the bigger the crowd the bigger the responsibility,” he adds.
UKM political scientist Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff says students learn such actions from watching adults.
“We are the ones who teach' them to do such things,” he says, pointing out that stepping on and tearing up pictures of leaders or burning another country's flag is really not something new in Malaysia.
In fact, it was even worse during the reformasi in 1998 when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as deputy Prime Minister and Umno deputy president. Angry supporters then turned against then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and called him all sorts of demeaning names and did worse things to his picture.
In the past, Dr Agus says, there was no fuss or “hysteria” over a stomped-on or torn-up picture of a leader like what is seen today.
“To me, it's a serious problem because if you don't learn respect at university or school, when you go out into the working world, you won't respect the office place or your bosses either.
“But what is important here is to be fair and even-handed in dealing with the situation. The political reality is that when this happens against opposition leaders, there is not this kind of anger or hysteria or police action but when it happens to government leaders or the PM, then the action is swift.
“And people who want to ampu' (apple polish) the Prime Minister are pressuring and insisting that action be taken.
“But the law has to be fair. There shouldn't be double standards because when that happens, it will push the middle class and the intellectuals away.”
Dr Agus points out that handcuffing Ong who surrendered to the police is within the ambit of the law but the problem is when people start questioning why the girl is handcuffed when many others, including politicians who are charged for much more serious offences, are not.
“People are watching all this and are dissatisfied with the way the law is applied. They are questioning too how come people found guilty of statutory rape are let off and where is the justice in the legal system.”
For UM sociologist Dr Rosila Bee Mohd Hussain, culture is dynamic and the way we define sopan santun differs from how our parents, grandparents and kids define it.
She says that society sees the stomping and mooning of the pictures of the leader as a deviant act.
“The youths have done something that society doesn't like but that doesn't mean the person is a criminal. These youths are in the process of becoming adults and there will be ups and downs and rights and wrongs in the process.
“Everyone knows that stomping on the picture is the wrong thing to do. It goes against our social norms but do we agree as a society that these kids should be convicted or put behind bars for doing that? Or should they be sanctioned informally, like the college or parents taking action?” she asks.
She also wonders why the youths did what they did was it out of fun, to get acknowledgement from friends, to gain a reputation or due to peer pressure?
“And do you handcuff someone like a criminal for a deviant act?”
Dr Rosila stresses that deviant acts are very different from criminal acts.
With criminal acts like murder or robbery or rape, some 10 or 20 years down the line, these will still be viewed as wrong and criminal. But with deviant acts, she says, the meaning changes with time something deemed deviant today could become acceptable tomorrow or be viewed as an act of morality years down the line.
As it is, the youths who engaged in this uncouth behaviour have suffered their reputations have been smeared, colleges have chucked them out and they are being humiliated because of the public outrage over what they have done
“It is not just them but their fathers and mothers too who have been humiliated and have to deal with all this,” says Dr Rosila.
She cites the Malay proverb buat baik berpada-pada, buat jahat jangan sekali' (do good deeds repeatedly and don't do a bad thing even once), adding that one bad deed has wiped out all the good deeds the youths could have done in the past, in the eyes of society.
Interestingly, Dr Rosila also points out that from society's perspective, there is a world of difference when a teenager commits such an act as opposed to an adult doing it.
The authority, she says, is the one with power as opposed to the youths and hence the authority, because it has the power, defines what constitutes an act of deviance.
And because youths have little power in society, she notes, the chance of them being labelled as deviant is higher.
“Yet if an adult or someone in a position of power does the same thing these youths did, people would assume that because they are adults, they have knowledge, wisdom, have learnt what they need to be part of society and they can think for themselves.
“So people ask: is he (the adult) doing it to draw attention to something, doing it on behalf of a group or a cause or is it propaganda or linked to a political scenario etc?”
Hence the sanctions when it comes to adults seem less severe.
No doubt, these youths were biadap in doing what they did. But the question now is how high a price should they pay for their offence? Would a heart-felt apology suffice? Or should they be taught a very painful lesson? Who decides?