When activists have to bear all risks to champion a particular cause, it is because the system of good governance has indeed failed.
There is a saying, “If the system works, the activists will be out of job.” In countries where the government is already doing all it can to pursue a particular good cause, the activists do not need to be shouting their guts out.
Ever wondered why there is Bersih and there is also Global Bersih, but elsewhere, there is no such need for public rallies to urge clean and fair election? If the people have confidence in the system, why the need to go to the streets?
I believe activists such as Maria Chin Abdullah, Bersih’s chairperson, would rather enjoy a laidback afternoon reading a novel than to spend 10 days in solitary confinement, if the Election Commission is committed to its original mandate of holding clean and fair elections.
Putting Chin behind bars under the controversial Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 seems therefore to be another attempt to destroy parliamentary democracy in the country, where the constitution upholds that the people have the right to organise street rallies to protect their constitutional rights.
What was of great concern recently in Malaysia was the arrest of Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Peka) president Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil and her assistant, Norhayati Shahrom. As argued by their lawyer, Siti Kasim, the manner in which the arrest and subsequently the remand was given was questionable.
According to the Johor police, they were arrested for allegedly making an offensive statement against the sultan of Johor. As pointed out by Amanah deputy president Salahuddin Ayub, no one is above the law; therefore, the state Menteri Besar Khaled Nordin has a lot of explaining to do.
Despite the nature of their work, the Peka duo were remanded for three days, which I think is really unnecessary given that both women were willing to cooperate with the police. Shariffa Sabrina is also the wife of a member of the Selangor Royal Council, and it is unlikely that she would flee out of the country.
That is why I concluded that the arrest and remand was more punitive than anything. There appears to be a fear not only of the cartoons described by political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque or Zunar as “cartoon-o-phobia”, but also of harmless women activists like Shariffa Sabrina and Norhayati who are concerned about excessive deforestation, leading to environmental degradation.
In their Peka Malaysia Facebook page, major environmental issues have been highlighted - and as I understand from Shariffa Sabrina, they would not be intimidated. In a statement published on Peka Malaysia, Shariffa Sabrina said: “Our fight is for the environment and will always be. We will continue to be the force in ensuring the protection and conservation of our natural environment.”
Given a choice, I believe both of them would rather go for a swim in the nearby river and enjoy their time at Tanah Aina resort, than to bark at the authorities for failing to protect the rivers from pollution.
Activists have a role to play
But imagine a world without activists like Shariffa Sabrina and Siti Kasim, who is currently assisting the Temiar Orang Asli in Kelantan to fight against deforestation.
Things can only go from bad to worse as we continue to lose our tropical rainforests to ongoing logging activities, and very soon, peninsular Malaysia, like Sarawak, would have lost most of its tropical rainforests.
People would continue to ‘rape’ the country’s rich natural resources without the slightest disturbance to their conscience.
If this had been happening in the early part of our country’s history, today we would be deprived of the natural tropical rainforests and its rich diversities of flora and fauna. The greenhouse effect would have a more serious impact on us.
Rivers would become heavily polluted, and even dried up, while landslides and other natural disasters take away lives of ordinary people.
The ecosystem would no longer enjoy the equilibrium that we have always had. People such as the Temiar Orang Asli community, for example, whose livelihood depended on the tropical rainforests, become dislocated. It may involve them, but what about you?
There is nothing else for us to pass on to our next generation of Malaysians. In fact, most rivers in the country are already considered ‘dead’. You may also find the heat to be unbearable. That is why we need the activists.
In the story, ‘Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, And Nobody’, the activists would not sit down believing that when “there was an important job to be done, Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.”
Since the prime minister and his cabinet ministers apparently care little to look into a certain problem, despite being vested with the power to do so, the activists would not accept the fate that at the end of it all where Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
This is why the activists have to cause a stirring in a situation. Yes, although their frequent campaigns may make the people in the corridors of power feel uncomfortable, the activists play a very important role in parliamentary democracy.
When the activists are barking, the powerful individuals and the kleptocrats no longer enjoy the ‘peace and tranquility’ to rape the rich resources belonging to the Malaysian people. Suddenly, the people become aware of what is happening to the natural resources God has endowed on this country.
Testimony of a failed system
The system, along with the people in the corridors of power, be it the executive branch of the government or those who are tasked with a job to protect the welfare of the people and the nation, has somehow failed to deliver what it is designed to do.
The Malay proverbial saying, “Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi” (it is disappointing when the fence is supposed to protect the padi, it ends up destroying the crop) is an apt description of our politicians today, especially on issues that do not attract votes.
This is why activists like Shariffa Sabrina, Henry Goh (Malaysia Nature Society president) and others like Clare Rewcastle-Brown (Sarawak Report) have come to the forefront to highlight issues relating to the shrinking tropical rainforests.
We have always believed that our democratic system is upheld by the executive branch of the government, the Judiciary and the Parliament; however, activists like the media are also a pillar that upholds and protects the democratic rights of the people.
Shariffa Sabrina, for example, entered into the limelight when she was arbitrarily arrested for allegedly highlighting some tropical rainforest clearing which caused degradation to the environment; her efforts have helped us become more concerned about the way our government has been managing natural resources.
In short, the activists are the checks-and-balances within the democratic system. They will not hesitate to criticise or expose a lie, if they can.
In her capacity as Peka president, Shariffa Sabrina does her work as a volunteer. Like most other activists, she has great passion for her work. It is unlikely that she would give up the cause. Despite the arrest, Shariffa Sabrina and Norhayati are are adamant to continue with their campaign to stop the indiscriminate clearing of tropical rainforests.
They would not put down their spade, but continue digging and exposing the people responsible for the deforestation until a few feathers are ruffled, and good sense finally prevails.
STEPHEN NG is an ordinary citizen with an avid interest in following political developments in the country since 2008.- Mkini