By Ooi Kee Beng
For The Edge Malaysia, December 25-31, 2017. Reprinted in Penang Monthly, February 2018.
Freedom cannot be understood apart from power. Like with all good dichotomies, it is never clear where the one turns into the other, or lives off the other.
Today, it is a staple in management courses and sloganeering to talk about empowering employees. “Empower” is also a term used from below. Empowering minorities, empowering women and empowering the poor all sound fine because we assume an extreme victimhood among these groups.
We do not talk as easily about empowering those who are already in positions of power, or those who are obviously not victims of someone else’s power. We do that only in relation to a bigger power that they have to suffer. We do not, logically, talk about empowering somebody who has absolute power, and only do that when it comes to those who are very weak. Those who are not very weak, we do not consider empowering too much for fear that they quickly become suppressors in turn.
After all, we do assume some one or some group having the power to empower others. Thus, an authoritarian cannot logically be empowered further, at least within his realm.
From this, we see that Freedom and Power have arms locked, conceptually. Freedom has a context, and that context is the inevitable contest for relative power. That is why we consider the notion and the institutionalising of checks and balances to be so important. It is wrong to think of it simply as the result of democratic thinking. The Magna Carta, seen by Anglo-Saxon thinkers as the starting shot for the curbing of the powers of the English monarch, was a check on the king, and a balancing of powers between his house and those of the nobles. Nothing very democratic there.
What it did show was that absolute power carries its own demise within itself, in that it leads to revolt at some level, and so, to protect the status quo, power must be curbed and shared among a few.
The point to remember is that power is not shared — and cannot be shared — equally among all within the realm. That would in fact be tantamount to the dissolving of power altogether, which we know is not a stable, or possible, situation. Power will instantaneously rise again the way warlords arose the minute a Chinese dynasty fell. Thus, even in the most developed of democracies, the only power shared by all is the vote. Beyond the vote and after the vote, the contestation for power begins and never ends.
Nevertheless, it is with the free and fair vote that a democratic culture comes into being. That is how notions of fairness penetrate society, and bring dignity to its politics. The integrity of its vote is the measure of a society’s self-esteem.
But then, the value of the singular vote can be — and is — easily diminished or even nullified through the electoral structure. That is why the construction of an electoral system is such a science in itself. Keeping this construction a technocratic and fair process is a gargantuan task though, since the parties wishing to load the electoral dice are always present, and fight to command the proceedings.
Gerrymandering and malapportionment of constituencies, which are rampant and par-for-the-course in the case of Malaysia, do make elections farcical to a painful degree. When you compromise the egalitarian vote, you compromise the legitimacy of the system, and you damage the reputation of the country. Worse than that, you open a Pandora’s Box of corruption, arrogance, unaccountability and non-transparency.
Power is thus something a society needs to systemically check and limit. Freedom after the vote, equality after the vote, depends on the fairness of the electoral system, for it is with that perceived and experienced fairness that society heals itself.
A healthy balance between the freedom of the individual and the power of the state lies therefore in making and keeping the electoral system free and fair, for it is there the ethos and pathos of the population are kept focused and dignified. How this can be done, how the Pandora’s Box can be closed (relatively, in any case) is through the exercise of individual freedom — through self-empowerment, if you like.
Freedom is as freedom does
Some of you may still remember the film Gandhi. There are two scenes in there that are still clear in my mind after all these years.
One is where Mahatma Gandhi told a distraught Hindu man who had just lost his child in violent rioting between Hindus and Muslims that to redeem himself, he should adopt a child, but that child must be a Muslim. What he was suggesting to this poor man was that if he wished to break the cycle of racial killings, of racist intent, he should act the way a non-racist would.
There is another episode, a famous one, where Gandhi, after much contemplation and strategising, hits upon the plan to defy British rule by acting as if it did not exist. So he and a small of band of followers set off on March 12, 1930, on a long march, over 240 miles, across western India. This took time, of course, and news of the march spread and more joined so that they altogether got to the sea and started making salt. With that magic act, the hegemony of the British Raj began crumbling, at least for those who participated. Those watching would also soon, in the subsequent violence used by the British against the demonstrators, witness cracks in colonialism’s hegemonic wall.
Now, this salt march is often described as an act of non-violent mass resistance. I see it simply as the gaining of freedom in one fell swoop through the power of the free act, just like the way a fair judge can bring immediate justice with one just sentence. The salt march was a self-empowering denial — and an ignoring — of coercive power.
Freedom thus boils down to being the free act itself. Freedom is as freedom does. Freedom is not given, it is taken.