By Low Iishan
“People are deeply imbedded in philosophical, i.e., grammatical confusions. And to free them presupposes pulling them out of the immensely manifold connections they are caught up in.” ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
“But if thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.” ~ George Orwell
Perhaps one of the most overlooked sources of authoritarian power is the ability of the ruling elite to usurp and monopolise the meaning of certain words. By associating words with carefully manufactured meanings, authoritarian powers can maintain linguistic hegemony over a people, allowing them to manipulate perception and mould public opinion.
It is for this reason that totalitarian regimes often embark on large-scale public relations campaigns, taking care to use certain words or phrases that they hope would capture the public’s imagination. In former Soviet countries, words such as “unity, loyalty, and country” were used to great effect in order to preserve an image of the communist party that was both progressive and liberating.
Even in the West, definitions of “liberty and justice” are regularly manipulated to cater to the needs of particular policies lawmakers wish to push through. It would appear then, that over and above the “barrel of Mao Tze Tung’s gun,” power often flows out of the pages of a dictionary. To have control over a people’s language is to have control over their hearts and minds.
The Barisan National understands this clearly. It is because of this that words such as “peace, reconciliation, and stability” have become such a central part of their post election campaign. We have our Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, reminding us daily of the need to maintain public order and protect the stability of this country.
Such calls for peace seem disingenuous and insincere next to the Barisan National’s brand of divisive, racist, and intolerant politics. Yet, this approach is more than just hypocrisy, it is a deliberate and calculated strategy to suppress a people by monopolizing their language. By associating peace, stability and reconciliation with ideas of ethnic supremacy, submission, and “democratically” established laws, Umno and the Barisan National are attempting to convince Malaysians that the only peace they will ever know is what they find in the status quo. To suggest otherwise is to disrupt the established order and throw the nation into chaos.
This is why Najib Razak and his “SWAT” team are so intent on reminding the people of what happened on May 13, 1969. To juxtapose peace with such a tragic event is to foment in people’s minds the ideal of a certain kind of peace: Peace so long as we (the Barisan National) stay in power.
Unfortunately, such a peace is no real peace at all. Stability is stability on their terms—a submission to their will. The “peace” that Zahid and the Barisan National speak of is a “peace” that belongs to them, not to the Rakyat. It is for this reason that we have to be ever vigilant in what we allow to become truths in our minds.
So exactly what kind of peace do we want? For many, peace simply means the absence of conflict. Such a definition is inadequate because of the many dangers it poses. The only conditions for such a peace is the relative powers of the parties involved. When it comes to the relationship between an oppressor and an oppressed, peace (or submission) is only a delusion.
The peace that we should be interested in is a peace with freedom and justice. This kind of peace is not struggle for power—it is a struggle for truth. A populace that understands this poses a tremendous threat to the survival of any authoritarian regime. It is for this reason that Najib saw it necessary to tout the need for a national reconciliation immediately after his party’s worst electoral performance in history.
It was a desperate attempt to reinforce the meaning of peace that the Barisan National so eagerly wants the Rakyat to believe. This is also why Zahid has been constantly making statements about national security and public order. He knows that if Malaysians become aware of the possibilities of a peace apart the status quo, the power that his party currently enjoys will be severely under threat.
Fortunately, GE13 was testament to the fact that many Malaysians are indeed moving in that direction. We have begun to envision a future in which the Barisan National will no longer dictate the terms of our peace. We want to take back the language that the Barisan National has deprived us of for so long. We desire to speak of a “peace, stability, and reconciliation” that is not associated with the fear of being locked up, the fear of a not so pleasant past, or the fear of an uncertain future.
We want peace because we love our country and we want to live up to our full potential as a nation. And it is this idea that drives us to challenge Zahid and his notions of public order. It is this idea drives to Adam Adlis of this country to rise up and challenge the received ideals of peace that the Barisan National has been perpetuating for fifty-five years. Malaysians must not allow anyone to rob us of our language any longer, especially when it comes to our expression and understanding of ideas so fundamental as peace.
What it comes down to is this — we Malaysians are a peaceful lot. So much so that the Barisan National has found it a terribly easy fact to exploit. But if Zahid and his political masters truly care about peace, they have nothing to fear from the Rakyat.
Peace and Justice may not seem like analogous terms — there are those that want us to think that justice must be compromised for the sake of peace, or peace compromised for the sake of justice. However, neither of these statements is true. It is true that the words “peace and justice” do not mean the same thing, but the two ideas are certainly complements.
Peace should be pursued justly, and justice should be pursued with peace. Malaysians then, should not fear a people’s uprising. Nor should they fear consistent and sustained challenges to Barisan National’s legitimacy. Indeed, it should be enthusiastically embraced if we are to claim back the language of peace that the Barisan National has stolen from us for so long.
Once again, it is my firm belief that Malaysians are a peaceful lot. Nonetheless, we have to ask ourselves at this very critical juncture in our nation’s history: What kind of peace do we want? The way we answer that question will dramatically shape the future of our country.
I believe that Malaysians want a peace that is lasting, just, and not contingent on the whim and fancy of the Barisan National. I believe that Malaysians want a peace that belongs to the Rakyat, and not to the Barisan National.
But in order to achieve this, we cannot be timid any longer. We must confidently stand up to Zahid and his “hammer.” The Barisan National can scream and threaten all they like, but they know that the day is coming that “peace” will no longer be dictated on their terms.
On that day, their monopoly on our language will be broken, and we will claim back for ourselves a “peace” that belongs to all of us.