“To be free is to persistently and collectively stand up against and resist institutional dehumanisation in all its forms.”
That is Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, the lawyer being investigated for sedition, in a pointed article questioning the relevance of the monarchy, published on the Malaysia Muda blog.
Fadiah is not the first person to push the envelope by criticising an “untouchable” institution, neither will she be the last.
What makes her case appealing, however, is the heavy handed measures meted out against her under the new Pakatan Harapan government which claims to espouse basic human rights tenets.
Here, Fadiah speaks about the incendiary article that garnered her nationwide attention, the role of civil society, and political alternatives.
The conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, follows:
Let’s start off with the obvious: why did you write the article “Don’t kiss the hand that beats you”?
I wasn't happy with our politics right before the elections. After May 9, after seeing the political narrative, I think we were still trapped in this old paradigm, like race-based politics were still there to stay.
In the run up to the elections, we had all these people back in politics switching sides, and most of them were not held accountable. No one was asking for accountability and when someone actually pointed that out – they got silenced.
There was also a lot of disagreement even among civil society on how do we approach this question (accountability) and I totally understand that people wanted to focus on getting rid of the government. Of course, that's important to me, but our discourse had to be expanded.
When May 9 happened, I was like, “Okay. Finally we have managed to get rid of an authoritarian government.” Which is good. But we have to be vigilant because there are a lot of actors who are now part of the government and who have committed crimes and are not accountable for them.
So there are all these “lesser evil-isms”. We are always asked to choose between two evils, and we are still stuck in that kind of position. We can never talk about the greater good because we are still like, “It's okay to choose the lesser evil.”
For me, it is more of, “Why can't we set a higher standard? Why can't we talk about the greater good?” That way, we can move forward and really put meaning into what we mean by democracy.
Also, we are still dependent on political actors, such as the political elite, to do the job for us and everything is reduced to the act of voting. My anger was basically founded on this political culture that we have.
After Anwar Ibrahim was released, of course I am not naive to think that politicians would save us, but I always believe in people power and I have always believed in people collectively doing something to make change possible and meaningful.
So after Anwar’s release, it was interesting to see him talking about the price of freedom. It looked like he understood what it meant to lose freedom and to regain freedom. I thought the discourse would change and maybe he could balance things out between the different political actors and different motivations.
Back then, it was also quite clear that Malaysians were not naive and they could see the internal power struggle between the monarchy and with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, that strained relationship.
And Anwar, at that point in time (meeting the Johor sultan) and even now, does not have any official position. Obviously he did what he did. I mean, he talked about the price of freedom, like in his ceramah, and everyone loves to hear him speak, right?
He touched on equality, freedom, justice. But when it came to practicing it? That’s what frustrated me. So, when I saw that picture of him meeting the Johor sultan – and thinking about what the Johor sultan and the crown prince, also known as TMJ, said before the elections – it really riled me up.
It just reaffirms this fact that the politicians will do whatever it takes to secure their positions. It is never about the people. It is never about challenging political culture that is toxic. It is never about challenging institutions that are not held accountable.
But were you expecting such strong reactions? Especially from the government?
No. I was expecting strong reactions from the people, but not from the state or the government. When I got called for investigation under the Sedition Act, I was quite surprised, because I really thought that the space expanded.
I was a bit naive, I think, Because everyone kept saying, “Oh, it is Malaysia ‘Baru’. We have a new found freedom.” So, I thought the space expanded. But I was wrong.
I am quite privileged because of my profession, because of the support that I have and my involvement in civil society. But what kind of message it this sending to the people?
Imagine, first you can’t speak about the monarchy, even though it is an institution, even though we claim ourselves to be a democracy, and you can't speak about them in a “new” Malaysia?
So this backlash is like a reality check for me that, yeah, the government has changed but the culture is very much there, deeply embedded. The culture of fear, intimidation, and threat, it's still there and we are not as free as we thought we were.
What do you have to say then to the common defence that the royalty is “apolitical” and serves as a check and balance?
I have explained this in my article but, of course, people say that we are constitutional monarchy, that their functions are very limited and all that.
However, if you look at reality and how strong they are, that they are immune to criticism, it proves that, no, they are not just a constitutional adornment.
It's quite clear that they are super powerful and they have a big influence in terms of siding whoever is in power.
This was demonstrated by what the Johor prince said right before the elections and also how the monarchy are fortified by existing draconian laws, such as you cannot say anything about them or you will be subject to these laws. They are really powerful.
So, for people who say that the monarchy is just there, and according to the constitution, it doesn’t have much power, or its power is limited by law and all that – reality says otherwise. You have to look beyond the documents and you have to look at the reality and the history of the monarchy. Not just here but everywhere around the world, it's the same politics.
Because that's what power does. Power structures behave quite similarly, so if you have that analysis, you will be able to see it quite clearly that the monarchy’s power is beyond what is stated in the constitution.
Since what we are discussing is currently in the realm of the freedom of expression, I am curious to know how do you define this?
Freedom of expression, in a world that is unequal, means freedom to be critical of power. You have to be free to check power and also be able to say it.
It’s also about putting your thoughts out there for people to think about. For us to really rethink democracy, the kind of democracy that we want. You know, the institutions that we have are immune to criticism. If these institutions are fortified by draconian laws, is that democracy? I don’t think so.
It’s quite clear we have a duty to question, to challenge, and also to start doing the right thing in order to ensure that we have institutions that are democratic, institutions that accommodate people and institutions that act in the interest of the people.
But does that freedom extend to people such as Muslim preacher Zakir Naik, for example?
Freedom of expression is not freedom to incite violence, not freedom to incite hate, not freedom to incite fascism. It is also not freedom to incite or perpetuate sexism.
So that’s very clear. That’s not freedom of speech. Freedom of speech or expression in the context of an unequal world is to challenge people who have more power than you, people who use that power to oppress marginalised groups.
That means your politics has to be clear. You have to go against sexism, you have to go against fascism, you have to go against racism and so on and so forth.
I'm going to hold you there on inciting hate. Isn’t that what some of your critics level at you – by writing the article, you are inciting hate?
Look at the power structures. Can I incite hate against someone who is more powerful than me? I don’t have the resources. I don’t have the protection. But you are the state and you claim to be fragile and offended? I can never be in the position to offend an institution that has power.
That’s why I think it is important to have an analysis of power because most of the time powerful people, powerful institutions are the ones doing that to people who don’t have power.
Now, you have been critical about Pakatan, especially its promises to repeal oppressive and draconian laws. Recently the coalition said it is committed to repealing such acts such as The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012. Is that enough for you?
Getting rid of draconian laws is one thing. The other thing is what's your commitment to protecting minority rights, what’s your commitment to protecting the LGBTQ people, what’s your commitment to ending homelessness, what’s your commitment to ending poverty.
Nothing is mentioned with regard to all these things. Everything is about getting rid of draconian laws, which is good. But people still need to eat, people still need to live a dignified life, people need a home, migrants need to be treated with dignity. They cannot be treated like animals or worse than animals.
So, where are your commitments to all these things? What about your commitment when it comes to protecting the marginalised? No one is interested to talk about this.
Even the 30% women representation, no one wants to talk about it, even though the women make up like half of the country's population.
So, where should the present government begin in dealing with these issues?
Start listening to the marginalised groups. Start listening to people when they speak. Do not dismiss them. Do not say such things as, “Be patient.” They voted for you. They trusted you when you said that you wanted to change and now you are betraying them?
Because people know the reality they have to go through on a daily basis. They are the ones living that reality and your job, as the government, is to listen and also get them to be part of the decision-making process.
This leads in to my question on representational democracy, which you’ve talked about in your article and several interviews. What do you propose as an alternative because it seems that hitting the ballot boxes once every five years is not good enough?
People have to be mobilised to first understand that they have power to also influence the direction of politics in this country. They have to start realising that being overly dependent on political parties, on political icons, on public figures, is going to incapacitate their ability to mobilise their energy and become a strong political force to compel those in power to listen to them.
Because we don’t have that power now that’s why they can just say be patient. Like, “You wait. If you are not happy, you can change the government in five years.” Because we don’t have that power they can say that.
And no one is mobilising the people now or telling people that, “You yourself can be a political force. You yourself, if you work collectively, if you move collectively, can change the narrative of this country.”
So, you don’t get the few political elite to control the narrative and dominate the political sphere. That we can really be on the same playing field to assert our political existence.
But this is assuming you have a sizeable number of Malaysians who are vested in the country’s politics.
It comes back to political consciousness. Our political education is very shallow and it’s quite obvious when you look at how we talk about politics, its either Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan. If you are not with us, you are against us. That's the only narrative that we know and without all this political actors, we are doomed. “Only they can save us.”
That is the problem. Maybe it is because of 60 years of indoctrination and understanding democracy wrongly. So what do we need to do? I think we need to really raise people's consciousness, to understand their own power, to understand the kind of democracy that works best for the people and to we mobilise our energy and move collectively to achieve that.
But do you think there are such people out there, people who are willing to be hands on in politics?
I have faith in young people. Of course that's not the dominant narrative now, but I see young people questioning this kind of thing on a daily basis. Not just here. I think everywhere in the world we are having that crisis where critical thinking is on the decline because of the system we have, right?
We go to university not so much to gain knowledge but to go out there and serve the market and make money. But there are always people who resist this narrative.
So there is going to be a perpetual contestation to try and reclaim that space and also redefine democracy, freedom – all these ideals that we learn in philosophy that we should practice in real life and not just leave them in the books.
A lot of people think this too idealistic, but why do we study philosophy, why do we read literature, if these aren’t things we should practice?
Will civil society its sting in an age where the government is more tolerant of activists such as yourself? Hypothetically speaking that is.
If there is space, it is definitely going to make things easier. But we can’t guarantee how long the space is going to stay, because power does what power does, right? That's the nature of power.
It is always going to be a perpetual struggle to ensure that power does not oppress. What civil society needs to do is ensure that the space continues to be there and also to mobilise the grassroots to be behind them or to be with them in case the state is backtracking or the state is doing something that is not supposed to do.
But, even now, we got our “new” Malaysia in May, and it is only July and they are backtracking on a lot of things.
Well, to quote our prime minister, it’s not the “Bible”.
If you can’t even honour that pledge you made in public, what else can we rely on? what else can we hold on to if this is how you view the document that informed your existence, or document that you used to win the elections?
This comes back to some of the criticism that might be levelled against you for demanding too much from the government, such as “give the government time” or “it is too early to criticise”.
What does it mean when we criticise the government? When people say, “give them time”, What do you mean by give them time? Does that mean that I should not criticise? But you are the ones who say that we have the right to free speech.
You are the ones who told us you needed to win this time because we need the space to be expanded. But when the space expanded a little bit, you are the ones who are actually saying, “No, no, this is not the time.” You are contradicting yourself.
That’s what I want to say to all these people. What do you actually want? What you mean by “give us time”? Say it clearly. Because you are contradicting yourself and that contradiction is disruptive.
Maybe it’s a case of “too much debt”?
That’s what the government has to do. You are in power for a reason and you have all the resources you need to run things in this country. You are well resourced, you have a lot of people working for you as compared to an individual like me, a citizen, where the only power I have is my voice.
And you are asking me to wait when you are the ones who are well-resourced and with immense power to anything you want to change the country.
Also, we are paying taxes till. You ask for donations and people give you donations even though times are bad. What else do you want? You want our votes we gave you our votes. It is never enough, huh?