Blind obedience to the state — Khoo Ying Hooi
JUNE 13 — During his recent address at the annual Razak Lecture Series organised by the Razak School of Government, Perak Crown Prince Raja Nazrin Shah said Malaysians are increasingly polarised 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 of 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.
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 analyses the individual’s relationship with the state. It concentrates on why a person remains obedient to the governmental law although he or she believes it to be prejudiced.
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 was 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 captured many hearts.
He wrote 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 arbiter of right and wrong.
Thoreau also asked why, if the government is deemed the voice of the people, the voice is subsequently not considered. Although at some points government may express the will of the majority, 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.”
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 realise it or not, civil disobedience has been important to this country’s political development, alerting the majority to injustices and unwise policies.
Malaysia has long been caught somewhere between democracy and authoritarianism. Nowadays, civil society has become a legitimate path for social and political participation and for influencing policy formation and public opinion.
Signs of change started becoming visible 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 summation, it would be unwise for the government of the day to be reluctant to consider civil society as part of its “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.
* Khoo Ying Hooi is an academic at University Malaya. She is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and Civilisation Studies 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]
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.