I was sitting in Café Slavia in Prague, looking out the window and watching the trams pass by. The evening sunshine was blissful, to say the least, and the drizzles were only making the whole scene mesmerising.
The classic ambience was engulfing me, as I saw the waiters and waitresses perform the time-honoured ritual of rapidly moving and shuffling between the tables, with some being able to keep their gracefulness intact still.
It is a famous café haunted by artists, poets and intellectuals since the late 1800s, and has survived the vicissitudes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two short-lived republics, Nazi occupation and Communist rule, but also witnessed the end of Czechoslovakia and the birth of a confident and democratic Czech Republic.
Most importantly, this place was a sanctuary for Czechoslovak dissidents fighting against the communist regime with their pen and theatrical works, and the most famous among them - Václav Havel - later became the first democratically elected president.
I stopped a middle-aged, rather chubby waiter and asked him to point to me where Havel used to sit.
“There by the window. He would always sit alone and think all by himself. I was much younger then.” And the waiter returned to his duties in no time.
Perhaps I came a bit too late, more than six months after the courageous poet, dissident and humanist politician had passed on in December 2011. But great men and women continue to speak by conviction, even in death.
Growing up in a country that is constructed on falsehood and mendacity, I cannot help but feel attracted to Havel’s writings. In 1978, he wrote the seminal Power of the Powerless, in which he called on the public to fight against a state that tried to control every aspect of the people’s lives. And the weapon that he proposed was nothing more than an ethical and moral life: living one’s everyday life as if the regime did not exist at all.
In other words, one must strive to live in truth to the extent possible.
Malaysians who earnestly care about the future of their believed country will find that Havel’s powerful words remain relevant today.
In The Power of the Powerless, Havel depicts a greengrocer who has no option but to display a slogan as required by the ruling party, most probably acutely aware also that no-one who passes by or enters his shop would care to read it: the potential customer is perhaps most concerned as to whether there are tomatoes available.
Testing each other’s political loyalty
Transplant the scenario into the Malaysian context, would it not be logical for one to question if the 1Malaysia banner or the Janji Ditepati logo on a taxi can help the driver who has been struggling to make ends meet alleviate his daily burden?
And the potential passenger would be right to be concerned if the car is clean and safe enough for him or her to take.
But both the driver and the passenger lift not a finger to protest and choose to put up with the banner or the logo instead because, as Malaysians, they don’t want to test each other’s political loyalty and undermine the ‘social harmony’.
Most crucially, they - or we - are afraid of being identified as non-conformists, and hence risk losing certain privileges or benefits, such as tyre subsidies.
In Havel’s view, and he was vindicated a decade after he wrote it, both the greengrocer and customer ‘are objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects as well... they are both victims of the system and its instruments’.
This is not only true in regard to the working class, but to the sector that supposedly plays the role of the Fourth Estate as well.
For years, the Malaysian media has been subjugated and degenerated into nothing more than a government mouthpiece. The so-called senior journalists are in full cognisance of the fact that the regime can be devious, brutal and deceitful, yet they choose to play along and work as if the arbitrary government has always been neutral and capable of being honest and fair. They endeavour to be obedient, and would encourage their readers to do likewise.
For instance, on the issue of a Chinese independent school in Kuantan, there is now an approval letter - issued by the Education Ministry - circulating on the Internet. Contrary to what the MCA has claimed, the letter shows what has been approved is a private school that would use Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction, rather than a new Chinese independent school on top of the 60 existing ones.
As a liberal, I am naturally in favour of maximising parents’ educational options, but I still respect the position of those who argue against more Chinese independent schools. But when what is approved is rather different from what is promised, can one carry on pretending it is a janji ditepati?
Regretably, Tay Tian Yan, the Sin Chew deputy editor-in-chief who has made more than enough blunders in recent months yet maintains that one should settle for second best. Earlier this week, Tay again sought to mislead the readers by portraying a scenario in which PAS managed to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state through a two-third majority in Parliament in 2014, thanks to Umno support.
On the same day, Sin Chew Daily splashed on its front-page a report headlined ‘PAS will implement hudud if it comes into power’, citing Mat Sabu as saying the Islamic party would seek to enable the Islamic penal code to be implemented through constitutional amendments.
The statement by Mat Sabu was outrageously taken out of context, and the manner in which Sin Chew sought to play on the fear of an Islamic state is clearly no difference from that of Utusan. It was not at all surprising that online readers who have grown deeply disgruntled with Sin Chew over the last few years are now taking umbrage at the sinister agenda.
Tay defended himself by arguing, albeit vacuously, that Sin Chew only sought to have the opposition pact lay its policy framework out “under the sun for public scrutiny”. But the very same writer has failed to call on Najib Abdul Razak to explain in full what had gone wrong with the Scorpene deal and to demand that Rosmah Mansor present an account of the expenses incurred by her trip to London, ostensibly to root for Lee Chong Wei.
Instrument within the system?
In assuming that the regime - and the apprentice prime minister to be precise - is capable of being honest and fair, are Tay and his senior colleagues at Sin Chew not therefore surrendering their autonomy and serving as an instrument within the system?
I wrote a couple of years ago how Sin Chew had reducing itself to being a Chinese answer to Utusan: sucking up to the powers-that-be, spin-doctoring to their hearts’ content, but still insidiously cunning enough to portray itself as a victim of media control ‘walking a tightrope’.
Not many agreed with my analogy then, and I now cannot deny a sense of schadenfreude.
In the scenario that Havel gives, the greengrocer suddenly realises one day that he has been used by the powers-that-be, and decides to speak his mind and refuses to play along. “By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such... he has exposed it as a mere game... he has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain.”
In sum, he “discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity”, and “gives his freedom a concrete significance... His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth”.
Yes, to be a genuine and honest journalist, one must first learn to refuse to lend legitimacy to a regime by saying no. But who in the Malaysian media scene can enable everyone to peer behind the curtain?
Today also marks the end of Merdeka Review. For the past seven years, it has served as a platform for various viewpoints to be exchanged, and allowed a space that is far more generous than what is the case with the self-emasculated Chinese press in Malaysia.
Beginning in 2009, it started a Malay edition that presented alternative views of the Chinese community to its Malay readers, and introduced open-minded Malay activists and intellectuals such as Adam Adli and Mustafa K Anuar to the Chinese.
I am thankful to them for the opportunity to write a column on a regular basis for nearly five years.
Due to the lack of funding and other reasons, the faithful team of people that has made Merdeka Review possible has to call it a day.
Small though the size and the readership of Merdeka Review may have seemed, the impact it has had on the Chinese-speaking community is self-evident.
As Havel argues in Power of the Powerless, it is utterly unimportant how large a space this alternative occupies: its power does not consist in its physical attributes but in the light it casts on those pillars of the system and on its unstable foundations.
I would like to congratulte my friends at Merdeka Review for a job well done, for unlike the likes of Tay Tian Yan and others in the Malaysian mainstream media, they do not pretend the current regime is worth working with, but have chosen to ‘express solidarity with those that their conscience commands them to support’.
In short, they have restored pride and dignity to a profession called journalism, and striven to live an authentic life as Havel did. I wish them all the best, and hope they will remain true to themselves in the years ahead.