Building a civil society is less about monumental buildings, grandiose projects, stealing from the poor in the name of governance.
By Howl Pillay We were brought up not to speak ill of the dead. At home and in school, we were taught that we must have the courage to say our peace; not excoriate the dead long after they are gone. It is a sign of cowardice.
Restraint and respect for the departed is a sign of civilised behaviour. At times we fail the test. Our conscience pricks us and it hurts but we learn. The next time around we desist from such behaviour. We then are on the road towards building a civil society.
Surely building a civil society is not about monumental buildings or grand projects. Or of grabbing the wealth of the rich and stealing from the poor in the name of governance.
Building a civil society is about a scrupulous adherence to the rule of law. It is about men and women behaving in a civil manner in the simple things they do everyday in their everyday lives.
It is about politeness; about grace; about fairness. We hold our tongue and our horses, especially when we hold the reigns of great political power.
Truly great men are humbled by that experience. They are transformed by it. And after retirement they retreat to within themselves to better understand themselves and the people they governed; to acknowledge their mistakes and their weaknesses.
The exemplariness of their lives carry a message for future generations; a message that acts as a light and a lamp to guide us in our journey to the better place we seek.
These, readers, are the Lincolns, the Rizals, the Ho Chi-minhs, the Tunku Abdul Rahmans, the Kartinis, the Gandhis, the Mandelas of history.
Lincoln’s emancipation speech will serve as an inspiration for as long as there are enslaved people. Rizal’s incredibly courageous farewell message to his people – Mi Ultimo Adios – written on the night before facing a Spanish firing squad and smuggled out in an old lamp is the proud patrimony of every Filipino.
And Ho Chi-minh’s words, deeds and steely courage inspired the Vietnamese to defeat two Western powers and unite a country after thirty years of war and sacrifice and yet he died as poor as a Vietnamese church mouse.
And Kartini’s educational endeavours on behalf of girls and women in her country is still honoured and her birthday is celebrated by two hundred and fifty million Indonesians as Kartini Day and school children solemnly pledge to continue her legacy every year.
Pissing and puking on graves What more need we say of Tunku Abdul Rahman who forged a nation and a people out of lands divided by race, religion, creed and colour and that were ruled as a colony for hundreds of years, without shedding a drop of blood.
But the minds of the unscrupulous leaders, the incorrigible ones, the recalcitrant ones are different. They turn up the volume of politics and fill it with racial hatred and tension.
They invoke ancient animosities and stoke the flames of religious intolerance to achieve their own ends. They hit out at all and sundry; they trash their rivals.
They conveniently forget; they selectively remember and they humiliate those who have the courage to stand up to them.
They piss and puke on the graves of others who had come before them. They rave and they rant; they twist and turn until all meaning is rendered meaningless.
And they enrich themselves at every opportunity for their greed is insatiable. It is they, who through their speech and deed come closest to making the dead turn in their graves.
They are not content doing the dirty work of dirty politics when in office. They continue with the same even after leaving it. And they do it with even more vehemence and venom.
Old habits indeed die hard. But still we who are civilised know that it is wrong to wish the death of another. It’s a no-no-no!
And so we take our unconscious thoughts with us to bed. And in sleep they become our dreams and nightmares; often forgotten on waking and if remembered, often nightmarish.
‘You will be judged’ But at rare times they wake us up, imbued with the rare persistence of a dream memory that is as clear as day, like the one below:
A long line of men and women are streaming past a bier. The line stretches back miles to some unknown place like ants streaming out of an undetectable hole in the ground. And yet more people are waiting patiently in groups and clusters both large and small in the streets of the capital.
They speak in quiet, dignified whispers. And soldiers guard the dead man, the ‘great man’, heads bowed.
I walk, unhurried, looking for the end of the line. I must not jump the queue; I am part of building a civil society. And then out of the blue I spot an old friend. We exchange greetings politely.
All his life he spoke of his disgust for the man now lying in state. I am puzzled. I ask him, in a whisper: “Why are you here?” And he whispers back: “To make sure he is really dead”.
A nod of my head, and I continue. I have walked hardly a hundred meters when yet again I see an old friend from my university days. Once a journalist, he gave up writing on anything at all after the newspaper he worked for was closed down by this ‘great man’.
Again we exchange greetings. He shakes my hand vigorously, like he is energised and happy. I say to him that he was the last person I expected to patiently wait his turn to pay his respects to this man.
He suppressed his laughter before whispering: “I will bow low before him so that I can see from close quarters how a mouth can fall silent forever”.
I look at his now sad face and move on, still looking for the end of the line.
The sun is beating down mercilessly. And yet no one is complaining. They quietly sip cold water from bottles, holding handphones and wearing earplugs. The umbrellas are out.
Someone calls out my name. I scan the line of people just ahead. I see a smiling face. Why, yes, it belongs to an old buddy, a good friend in school. A colourful character who became a successful businessman only to lose it all when the rules of the game changed forever during the tenure of this ‘great man’.
He never forgave him or his Cabinet. I ask him why he is here. He says with a smile: “I want to hear the silence of a heart that had no conscience”.
In a daze now, I walk on wondering whether it could have all been different.
Lost in thought, I stumble into the queue. A woman stretches out her hand that stops me from falling. And then she says quietly: “Well, well, well! What a coincidence! Fancy meeting you here!”.
Brenda, my ex-boss was a dynamic lady who quit working at 45, at the prime of her career.
She had enough putting up with ‘twenty two years of his government’s interference’. I asked her why she’s here. And she said, cursing under her breath: “I want to see the ears that never heard the pain of ordinary people or listened to anyone”
I can hardly take one more step. Then I hear a familiar voice. I look up. It’s my English teacher from my school days. Yes, he is an old man now, all white and grey. And pale and frail; a ghost of a man.
I picked up enough courage and asked him why. He said with a mischievous glint in his eyes: “Don’t worry about me.
“Just remember the thing I told everyone of my students in school: You will be judged by not what you say but by what you leave behind. And never spit on the dead!”
Lying in state I know it is all a dream!
For when he dies, as we all will, he will be wrapped in white and tightly secured in accordance with the tenets of his faith.
My four friends who came to me in my dream will not see his face, his ears, his mouth or hear his heart not beat anymore.
He will lie in state: and for once the ceremonies he is honoured with will match his character!
But as always with him, the real lie will accompany him to that other place, shrouded and secure!