In an era of social media supremacy, what value is there to hit the streets and take up placards to champion a cause? Being teargassed and sustaining heat strokes are unpleasant and wading through the streets with a mob is a slow and painful process.
Twitter and Facebook however offer the comforts of home, a pseudonym to hide your true face and well that option to always be AFK, or away from keyboard.
It’s effectiveness? Well, just ask the guy who is fresh from serving a month in prison. Chua Tian Chang or Tian Chua is well-known for his social activism with his face plastered on articles dealing with protests and dissent.
“I would like to stress that there’s no big deal in going to prison. As an activist, that’s part of your occupational hazard, if you can call it that.
“It’s something you can endure as long as you stay strong and are mentally prepared for it.”
He is certainly a controversial figure, and for that you can look up his Wikipedia page. In this wide-ranging interview, Tian Chua talks about democracy and protests and the relevance of going down to the ground to air your grouses.
Our conversation edited for length and clarity follows.
You were drawn to social activism since your days as a university student in Australia. What was that one event that defined your career as a social activist?
Well, towards the end of my studies, Operasi Lalang happened, and that awakened a lot of Malaysians towards the human rights conditions of the country.
So, when I came back, I was involved with various non-governmental organisations and doing various types of activist work. I also joined support groups against Ops Lalang, and eventually found my way to Suaram, the human rights advocacy group.
Anwar Ibrahim was the symbol of the Reformasi – an event which you were also involved with and that catapulted your political career – but he also played a role in implementing Ops Lalang. In fact, he was deputy prime minister then. So didn’t supporting Anwar go against your beliefs as an activist?
The issue is we are living in a real political world. All real worlds are political and all political worlds are real. We are not dealing with angels; we are not dealing with heavenly beings who do not live on earth.
And politics is about constantly trying to change and engage real situations and this involves real people, and we don’t expect real people to make no mistakes. Also every engagement is an experience for the next step, so it’s not just about Anwar. He may be the symbol but ultimately the Reformasi was about people revolting against an overly repressed society.
Another thing, in a mass movement, we have all types of people joining and these people who demonstrate are not angels either. You have people who might have had criminal records, some of them might be former policemen or civil servants, or some of them might be people whose only motive in life is to make money.
But when a society reaches a certain point of rupture, that’s were a social movement draws its strength. It’s like a river where all types of forces come together to act on this particular problem. So the theoretical argument about leaders and how ethical they are is actually irrelevant.
So you are saying that Anwar was just the catalyst?
Yes. Anwar was just the catalyst because every person who decided to join the movement, joined for their own reason. Maybe they were poor or maybe they lost their businesses after the financial crisis of ‘97.
Or maybe they believed what Anwar said was correct and decided to support him or maybe it was some housewife who decided that something had to be wrong for the deputy prime minister she respected to get sacked and humiliated like that.
There are a thousand reasons people gathered that day but back then everyone decided to do the same thing, at the same time, and that required a catalyst.
But it is believed that one of the foils for protests is economic growth. That when boom times occur, people are less reluctant to demonstrate, hence the not-so-amazing turn out during the Reformasi.
Well, I don’t agree with that as it's a myth that has been propagated and there's no grain of empirical truth. If you want to say poor people protest, than you cite Indonesia because they are poor.
But Indonesia's protest area is Jakarta, not the poorest part of Java. Okay granted there are hungry people, but how do you explain Hong Kong or Taiwan or South Korea?
That’s not the case with Malaysia though. The middle class didn't come out in droves during the Reformasi.
Now that's an interesting case and I still don’t think economy was the answer. The middle class may not trust the opposition then. There was also the threat of violence.
There was good empirical evidence in Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea that during the periods of change, there were a lot of violence and some destabilising factors. Perhaps that was the reason the Malaysian middle class decided to stay indifferent during the Reformasi.
But that has changed – not because of economic situations – but because political parties consistently showed that they can champion the people’s values.
In fact, now it is not the middle class who are not convinced. It is the poorest of the poor who are not convinced that changing government will make any difference and they might even prefer cash handouts as an incentive to vote.
So, there's no standard rule for that. It requires us to identify concretely where the problems are and try to win the confident of the voters.
In your own words, define the role of civil society.
It is a mental construct, it’s not physically there. You can’t exactly see it and to equate a group of non-governmental organisations as civil society is also not accurate.
Civil society and the state are two different sides of a coin. The state represents a certain structure; civil society represents a certain structure.
The state has a well-defined hierarchy. For example, when you pay your tax, you get this sort of service, or when you call a certain number, the police will come. These are all functions of the state.
Civil society comes from a less organised structure, meaning individuals and social organisations take on concerns for certain issues. So that has always been that tension between state and civil society.
I don’t think we can define the role of civil society. It has always defined its role as the state evolves. So if the state is increasingly more open, civil society will be increasingly drawn into the state.
For example, if we pass a law that every project in our neighbour must have a public meeting consisting of all the residents, then civil society is automatically locked into the state decision. So that role is not defined until the state passes that law.
If the state keeps pushing civil society to a corner, they might be quiet for a while but then they'll organise themselves and vote for the opposition.
That is the flexibility between both sides. So, I don’t take this simplistic definition to say state plays this role, civil society plays this role.
Also, when society becomes more democratic, there will be no longer a unified voice for civil society to participate in the state.
Do elaborate on the unified voice bit.
Let’s take press freedom, for example. For now, we can only do an outburst that media are not free. That’s all. But as for the quality of media? Or the quality of the free media?
But if a society reaches a situation like in Indonesia or the Philippines, now there no one talks about free press anymore. Now it’s a quality debate, whether that paper is good or crap, or where this press is pro-capitalist or pro-socialist.
So this is a case of the press competing among themselves to serve their civilians, it’s no longer a unified voice of the civil society pushing for an issue.
Even protests. When there was no law that allowed protests, every protest was a riot. So of course the state came down very hard on it. Before the Reformasi, people would even be very worried to even sign a petition.
But after the Reformasi and all the events that followed – now you even have an alternative government in Selangor and Penang – people are now braver.
So even for small things, they will go and protest and bring their guys to the council and hand a memo and so on. It’s so normal already.
And this where every time you engage or confront, you expand the space we have for civil society. When that happens, the state will compromise by stepping back a little and allowing civil society to, say, protest.
But there has never been a finer, perfect stage. It’s always a constant rivalry; it has always been there.
I guess we can see this bit in the form of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. But that’s also because of the federal government and they have allowed more space for civil society actors.
Because they are forced to, but it is not enough. There are still a lot of intimidation and a lot of areas the people who hold power are not willing to loosen their grip on, and this is an ongoing thing we have to continue to be vigilant.
Since we are talking about the ruling coalition, one effective form of grassroots activism that Barisan Nasional employs is giving out handouts. So what is the opposition bringing to the table this time round to match that?
At some stage, handouts become stale and ineffective and we are lucky we are reaching that stage, otherwise it is definitely still effective. The reason is like this: when people cannot hope for something better, they will not give out what they have now.
Everyone is like that, even you are like that. We are not more moralistic, more “higher ground” than rural folk, because unless you are sure that something better will come, you will not give up what you have now.
So if they think that changing the government is a pipe dream, might as well take something, and there are varying degrees to this.
The more desperate will take that RM50 or RM100. The less desperate will have collective bargaining, say build us a bridge and we'll vote for you. And some will say, I want to evaluate your policies.
Eventually, if we are able to sell them a paradise, to say that ok you forgo the handouts, the bridge, you will get more than that – your life will be better.
If voters believe you, they’ll forgo those things and vote for you. If they think you are joking, they’ll stick to the status quo. I mean before 2009, nobody believed if you forgo this RM100, you’ll get more than that.
But during the 2009 general election, many voted for the opposition and they were ideologically driven, whether for PAS or DAP or just the opposition in general.
But the opposition has gone past that and showed that we can run a government and true enough, the last general election, the popular vote, at some 52%, showed that.
And maybe the remaining 48% thought that change may not benefit them, but in a democracy that’s how it goes.
But those 48% are legitimate sentiments right there. Why do you think the opposition has yet to capture that sizeable chunk of the electorate? Why aren’t these people buying the Pakatan vision?
Yes, those are legitimate sentiments and I don’t think this is because they are stupid. They are being practical and they are exercising their rights.
And we have to work harder. I think we have not worked hard enough. We have to listen to them and their concerns.
If you are from the rural areas, your concern is not open tender or transparency in your chief ministry, your concern is whether you are getting these subsidies for fertiliser or pesticide. Or, the rhetoric of an oversized civil service. Don’t forget, some 1.3 million live on their salary and it’s a meagre salary, not luxurious.
Now the opposition keeps talking about an oversized civil service, will that mean job loss for them?
So we have not done enough but at the same time we can’t fool them because when you fool them, the other side who voted for us will think there’ a lot of wastage. We can’t promise the sky.
You were someone who was initially outside of the power structure, and in some ways now part of the very structure you oppose by way of your appoint as an MP. How do you not compromise on your values as an activist?
First of all, there’s no such division. Power is distributed through various hands, so the more democratic a society is, more power is rested in society. The more repressive society is, more power rested in the state.
Every engagement is about how, if we are going to democratise, to push more power towards civil society. So, whoever participates in the state structure is actually reducing the power of the state and increasing the power of the civil society.
The fact that we hold power means the state has actually lost some power. That if Keadilan (PKR) can become federal government, that means the state has lost power.
Previously, power was shared only by one party. Now you have to share it between two or more parties. Every engagement is a pulling down of the central power that rests with the state. So, for me there's no such compromise.
Right, but how do you juggle both identities, as social activist and politician? Something’s got to give.
That's not my concern. People who worry about their identity should not enter politics. We are not movie stars and we come in with a set of things we want to do.
The first thing is to put a proper democratic system in place and as a social activist, I understand that a democratic political system has to be sustained by a few pillars. Let's work on the pillars – better information circulation, better education, a free press, and a more responsive government towards public opinion, for example.
But the first thing we need to do is strengthen democracy and that's the highest priority. I mean, I don’t want a dictatorship to come in to give universal healthcare. That's just bribery; it doesn't change anything.
To me, more important is, how do we incorporate various political forces so that there can be interaction on a democratic platform? That's the first priority for the opposition.
Since you’ve been in the game for a while, what’s your critique of social activism in the country?
People want to see delivery and they want to see that protests bring about what they expected. If you keep protesting and at the end, you keep hitting a brick wall, you will stop completely.
Malaysians are starting to lose this need to protests or demonstrate because I believe they think we have a shameless prime minister, so no matter the sacrifice, the prime minister will not step down even though they may think he is not responsible.
Many of them just wait for elections, so there’s the shift from an active to a passive way for elections. There’s nothing wrong with that because people always expect something that has value.
If let's say the protest leads to something positive, they will come again. That’s how it is.
Speaking of passive, what’s your take on social media activism? Nowadays you don’t need to take to the streets, many believe the war for the 14th general election will be waged on social media.
That's discharging energy the wrong way, so people think they hit the Like button, it's activism. It's not. You still need that raw and very primitive aspects: walking with your feet, meeting people, and convincing people with your ideas.
Social media cuts off that interaction. So, I don’t have to know whether my position makes sense, I just have to say this is what I want and hit the publish button. The other guy will say I am stupid, that I shouldn't want that and he hits publish.
There’s no dialogue and then we start scolding each other and that’s the end of that. There’s no interaction whatsoever.
The problem is social media unwittingly undermines a lot of interaction. So for me, as a politician, nothing replaces sitting down and talking to people, convincing people with your ideas and trying to turn their logic around and let them understand that maybe their prejudices were wrong, and they should consider the other side of the argument.
And we have to use real life examples to help them see.
So, do you think this aspect of social activism still has a role to play in the national conversation?
Yes, this has been going on for thousands of years and this will go continue another thousand years.
Look, in the UK, I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is up there with his internet skills unlike some of his European contemporaries. But he takes the traditional working class style, walking the streets, talking to people, emphatising with working people.
To show the solidness of what you believe in, I think that’s the best philosophy.
But what about that breed of politician-activists, those like yourself? Will they still play a part in the grander scheme of things?
I don’t know if that breed is anything special. We are a creation of society and if one day protests are no longer something risky and just mundane, then everyone will do that.
But I don’t think protests alone is the determining factor. It’s just a means, a way of expression. Ultimately, we have to see the value, the value behind the protest.
For example, we have glorified certain revolutionary ideas in the name of democracy such as the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but you can also say that Islamic State also does the same thing.
But of course they stand for different values, they represent the same actions but the action itself has no value. It only shows the determination of the actors and their willingness to go that far to risk their lives for their ideology.
For example, if you choose tolerance, it does not mean you have to go all out to demonstration or put yourself in danger in order to achieve a tolerant society. Some people would rather teach their children tolerance and believe that’s their role. Fair enough, that’s legitimate.
So a health democracy allows these diversities where people can position themselves to go where they want to go. If you are for radical, reactionary ideas, you can go demo, you can shout whatever, but don’t hurt anybody.
We should allow reactionary and progressive ideas, but it is society who decides and the political system of the day must follow the will of the majority.
Lastly, while we are on this will of the majority and since its election fever, what happens if you lose? How will you accept that?
Whether I am fine or not, that will happen and it doesn’t matter: politics is very cruel. If you provide 5% of the poor with social housing, someone is going to stand up say they can provide 10%.
Okay, so let’s stand for election and eventually if people are concerned about that issue and think 5% is not enough, they will vote for that 10% and when this person tries, he or she may not achieve 10% but 7%. So? I am happy. At least they are doing it.
But for me what matters is that I set the path to this direction by working towards overthrowing Barisan Nasional. Only then competition comes in and this will force us to perform and outperform each other.
And I am optimistic about this and I believe that a democratic structure will brings us to that direction.
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