Dennis Ignatius: Should politicians be protected from the wrath of the people?

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“When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Of late, the police appear to be stepping up their crackdown on citizens who have criticised or insulted politicians. The recent arrest of four citizens for apparently insulting Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor is a case in point. All four are being investigated under a law that criminalises “intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace”. If found guilty, they could be punished with up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine or both.

This raises troubling questions about the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. Do our elected representatives deserve to be protected from the wrath of the people who voted them into office and who pay their salaries? Shouldn’t our politicians be man enough to face public scrutiny no matter how unpleasant it may be? After all, anyone who takes a public position on any issue has to accept the reactions that come with it; just ask any columnist. Why should politicians be any different?

In a democracy, people ought to be free to condemn, criticise, rebuke and even ridicule their elected representatives if they behave inappropriately, fail to do their job or promote policies that citizens disagree with. It’s one way of holding them accountable and keeping them honest between elections. It is part of the rough and tumble of the political process in a participatory democracy. It would be nice if citizens voiced their anger and discord politely, but if they choose to be more aggressive in their tone, that is their right too. If politicians don’t like it, they can always go and find another job that pays well for doing little. Or move to the People’s Republic of China where political leaders are safe from criticism.

What’s more, some of our politicians absolutely deserve to be criticised. Sanusi, for one, has been nothing but boorish in his behaviour. He ignored the sensitivities of Hindus by cancelling the Thaipusam holiday, callously allowed the demolition of a Hindu temple, made insulting remarks about Indians, refused to acknowledge the plight of desperate people who raised the white flag, disregarded government-mandated movement control regulations, and made a crass and insensitive joke about Covid-related deaths. He has earned every bit of the scolding he is now receiving.

In response to the public outcry over the arrests, Sanusi was quoted as saying that the arrests were not his doing as they were based on police reports made by his officers who felt certain remarks had crossed the limits of decency. He must think Malaysians are fools if he expects us to believe that his officers acted on their own. It’s just a devious way of shirking responsibility for attempting to silence his critics. He was also quoted as saying that people are free to criticise him all they want but they should use “the right language”. Haven’t we heard that before from thin-skinned politicians? It’s another way of saying they fully respect freedom of expression but not when it is directed at them. In any case, Sanusi should take his own advice and use the right language when he himself speaks.

And when the police charge citizens for provoking “a breach of the peace”, whose peace are they protecting? Does Sanusi’s peace take priority over the peace of the citizens who have been insulted and provoked by his behaviour? Who protects the citizens when government leaders and politicians insult our intelligence with ill-considered policies and knee-jerk reactions that defy logic and common sense? Who do we turn to when our politicians disturb our peace by overthrowing the government we elected, needlessly suspending Parliament, spending our money recklessly and failing to manage a pandemic that is literally killing us? Who protects the citizens from the outrageous antics of our politicians who spread hatred, bigotry and discord? I submit that when it comes to breaching the peace, it is our politicians who are far more culpable than the citizens who lash out at them from time to time when their patience runs out.

This whole idea of charging people for criticising or ridiculing government leaders is wrong. And it is simply unconscionable for the police to raid the homes of dissenters at 4am in the morning as if they were terrorists or wanted criminals. What’s happening to our police force? My colleague ambassador Noor Farida Ariffin of G25 was right to question whether Malaysia has become a police state where the rakyat are not allowed to criticise political leaders when they act against the people’s interest.