What price freedom? Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz http://www.thesundaily.com/section.cfm?id=487

What price freedom? By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

By: (Fri, 06 Aug 2010)

addressing the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit last weekend, a day after Tengku Razaleigh gave another terrific talk and just after the banter between Khairy Jamaluddin and Ibrahim Ali tickled the audience pink. I was discussing how to get apathetic youth excited about politics, but one specific topic was lowering the voting age. I pointed out that most democracies have a voting age of 18, and that it is condescending towards young Malaysians for them not to share the same qualification for suffrage.

My two fellow panellists added further reasons, equally compelling, for such reform. We were therefore surprised by the questions from the floor. Several of these bright, articulate young Malaysians argued that the voting age should not be lowered.

Among the reasons given were that 18-year-old Malaysians were “not mature enough” to vote, that they might be highly impressionable and make the “wrong” choice, that they should focus on their studies, and furthermore campuses shouldn’t be politicised. What utter tosh, I replied, pointing out that in UK universities there are branches of Conservative Future and Young Labour with no adverse effects on those who join them (Tun Razak included). And it’s not just young people who are impressionable: adults, too, are just as susceptible.

By lowering the voting age you give an additional opportunity for people to learn from their mistakes. To one woman who asked if politics in campuses would distract students from their studies, I replied absolutely: indeed it is a healthy distraction, and whoever is telling young Malaysians that university is solely a place for academic pursuit should shut up, for they are damaging our future generations. University is where you grow up, try different activities and do things you might not want to do later in life.

Thankfully, the feedback after the session indicated that the anti-camp was in fact in the minority, but the fact that some students themselves are subscribing to such paternalist views and doubting their own ability to make decisions must be cause for concern. By the way, the voting age in Indonesia is 17.

Of course, complementary reforms such as encouraging critical thinking in children from an early age and protecting free speech and a free media are essential, and thus abolishing government interference in schools and repealing restrictive press laws are important steps to take alongside encouraging political activity among youth.

On that note I was disappointed that the police saw it fit to arrest my friend, the poet Tshiung Han See and others at the anti-ISA vigil in Kuala Lumpur (even though, in some state capitals, there was reportedly much greater cooperation from the cops in the exercise of democratic rights to protest).

They were picked up by unenthusiastic policemen apparently prioritising those holding candles and wearing red or black T-shirts, and rounded up into vans that sent them to a police station in Petaling Jaya, where they remained until being bailed out at around 5am. For some time, handcuffs were put on my friend. Being a rather blasé kind of guy he seemed to be amused by this development, but there was a 17-year-old among the group who enjoyed the experience rather less.

Do they think that subjecting people to such humiliation is sufficient to contain outrage against the ISA? I have denounced the ISA before: in a time of peace the government uses it as a tool of oppression and intimidation.

This nauseating weapon against individual liberty excuses the government from having to fight ideas with ideas: force will suffice. Just lock them up, no argument necessary. It is a boon for the cowardly politician, and every successive home minister who fails to eliminate this stain on our statute books deserves that appellation wholeheartedly.

If this goes on, next year I shall encourage my libertarian friends to join the chaps from Parti Sosialis Malaysia and the women from the Women’s Aid Organisation, and spend the evening listening to Han See’s poetry in the lock-up, but in case we get separated, I may have to bring some of my favourite Rumi too.

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