The ballot box and protests

  • Letters
  • Thursday, 29 Nov 2007

For democracy to have any sort of meaning, it must be part of our lives every day . 

KUALA Lumpur has been a busy place of late. Roads closed, people marching around, sometimes in colour-coordinated outfits. It all made our capital that much more hectic and more colourful than usual.  

Politicians too have been more hectic and colourful than usual.  

The common thread of comments from members of the ruling party is that all these protesters are merely tools of the Opposition and, besides, we are a democracy and you can always let your feelings be known at the ballot box. Why take to the streets? It is not our way. 

Allow me to deal with these two points: the ballot box and the idea that protesting is not “our way”. 

Let’s look at the ballot box first. Every four of five years, it rises up from its resting place and it is supposedly all the democracy we need. 

This is a bit of a silly idea because democracy is not like some mythical beast that slumbers for years and then rears its head every now and then to be fed. 

Democracy, if it is to have any sort of meaning, must be part of our lives every day. 

If one were to think that the ballot box is the be-all and end-all of democracy, then one is playing a zero-sum game. 

It’s all or nothing, either you are with us or against us.  

This is an oversimplification of George Bush proportions. 

It is not just opposition people who engage with the Government. Ordinary people and civil society want to have a say, too. 

Furthermore, there are people who support or even like most of what the ruling party does but disagree with some of its decisions. Surely, they have the right to voice their concerns? 

That right of dissent is a vital component in a democracy, as it helps to ensure that governments are aware that their responsibility and culpability to citizens is something that exists all the time. 

The question is how that dissent should be expressed. 

Yes, the ballot box is one way but it is pretty much an all-or-nothing method of dissent.  

One example of its downside is the slow registration process. 

I know of young people who have registered to vote for months and yet their names still do not appear in the register.  

Just how difficult is it to place someone on the electoral roll?  

In this age of computers and MyKad, it should be a matter of hours or at the most days. Not months. 

Furthermore, I can’t see the logic of having some large parliamentary seats with many voters and some tiny ones with very few. 

The division of constituencies is such that in the last general election, on average the ruling party needed 16,000 votes to get a seat while the opposition parties needed 180,000 votes for each of their seats. 

Another method of dissent is through the press. An argument against a dissenting press is that a totally free press is dangerous and the people are not ready for it. 

Well, no one is saying that the press has to be totally free. Everybody is bound by laws. 

The issue in question is the extent of repression that those laws exert. 

As long as the Printing Presses and Publications Act exists, we can say that our press, despite good intentions, is on a short leash. 

How much coverage can you give to dissenting voices when the object of those voices’ anger could whip away your licence to publish at any time? 

What other methods are available then to show dissent? Handing in politely worded documents to the powers that be is all well and good, but sometimes an issue is so big that people want to express themselves. 

They want to come together in a show of solidarity and to make as big an impact as possible. 

For example, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned up, there were people in the streets.  

Maybe what is really meant is that opposing the government on the streets is not “our way”.  

But then didn’t Umno organise demonstrations against the Malayan Union? That was opposing the government, wasn’t it? 

Oh yes, that was in a different situation. There were no ballot boxes and the press was controlled by the British. 

A democracy needs dissent. It needs a free press; it needs people to express themselves.  

Anything less is disrespecting our inalienable and fundamental freedoms. 


Dr Azmi Sharom is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. 

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